Even after we are told there is “no evidence of disease,” angst and fear of recurrence remain our constant companions, sometimes for years—until either we are lucky enough to make a full recovery, passing the magical five-year mark and regaining emotional health, or the cancer returns, bringing with it a whole new set of common cancer emotions. Those struggling with uncontrolled recurrence or end-stage disease often experience anger, denial, guilt, demoralization and sometimes, acceptance of the inevitable.
As unexpected as a cancer diagnosis might be, the common cancer emotions that follows are actually somewhat predictable. Most of us feel instant panic and fear of death, coupled with stress and anxiety. Fear and anxiety often stay with us throughout the cancer experience, ebbing and flowing with every change or bit of news. Often, a sense of isolation creeps in, a feeling that no one else can understand what we are going through. Fatigue and depression also are common cancer emotions as we move through the process. And many patients feel they have lost control over their lives, lost their identities and maybe even lost their minds. These emotions interfere with life, making it hard to do the things we need to do, and complicating treatment and recovery.
Brain Chemistry Contributes to Emotions
Our personal histories, DNA, disease and treatment influence how we internalize and express our emotions, but the patterns are far more common than expected. Nearly 70% of us feel stress and anxiety, up to 60% experience fatigue and cognitive issues during and after treatment. For some of us, the emotions are more severe—16% of patients face major depression, and 10% experience PTSD.
Chemical changes as a result of the disease and treatment can create and exacerbate these emotions. Anesthesia, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, steroids, even tumors themselves, influence the way our brains experience and deal with stress. Fatigue and depression, natural responses to any sickness, drive us back to bed long after the physical need for it has passed as normal brain chemistry gets further and further out of balance.
Common Cancer Emotions, But Not Normal
Just knowing that these emotions are common can help. But common is not the same as normal. If you are overwhelmed by emotions, talk to your medical team. You have a right to expect emotional support as part of your complete care, and most cancer treatment centers offer some type of peer-to-peer, group or individual counseling. Sometimes it can feel hard to ask for the help you need, but you’ll be glad you did.
Mehta, R. D. and Roth, A. J. (2015), Psychiatric considerations in the oncology setting. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians,65: 299–314. doi:10.3322/caac.2128
Stanton, A.L., Rowland, J.H., Ganz, P.A.(2015) Life After Diagnosis and Treatment of Cancer in Adulthood: Contributions From Psychosocial Oncology Research. American Psychologist,2015 Vol. 70, No. 2, 159–174 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037875