Cancer involves so much loss it is inevitable that it brings heartache. At the most fundamental level, cancer causes us to lose our innocence — that righteous sense that others get sick, not me, that sure, we all die sometime, but I don’t have to think about that yet. That is, until cancer rears its head and you do.
And then there’s the loss of control when your life gets taken over by doctors and treatment schedules that destroy your ability to plan and schedule. There is loss of energy, loss of appetite, loss of hair. Surgery means loss of tumor, but also comes at the cost of lost body parts, whether they be external and noticeable (a breast) or internal and critical to well-being (colon, ovaries, a lung). There is loss of identity when you stop looking or feeling like yourself. Loss of hope when treatment fails or disease returns. And sometimes loss of life. We all lose something when cancer is involved.
And with that loss, comes grief, a natural reaction to the adjustments cancer and loss can cause. Sometimes it’s desultory and passing. Other times it can be profound and long lasting. Grief that stops us in our tracks and tears at our hearts. Grief that pulls us up short and changes how we look at the world and ourselves. Grief that makes it hard to get on with life and makes us question if we want to.
But, grief doesn’t just affect how we feel emotionally. Grief exerts its power on our physical life as well. It interrupts sleep, changes appetite, increases the sensation of pain, interferes with concentration. It brings weight changes and intense fatigue.
Processing the Pain
Like most emotions, we all respond to grief in different ways. Some of us rage at the injustice and unseen causes, or become irritable and snap at those we love. Others wail loudly whether alone or in private, or sob quietly in the shower when no one is looking. Some will confront it head on, other will deny the emotion and try to will it away. Many of us run through a series of “if only…” statements, assigning blame and accepting guilt for missed opportunities. We have good days and bad days, think we have put it behind us only to be overwhelmed again. Some of us bounce back quickly, others slog our way through the emotional mire for months or years.
How we deal with grief often reflects our general approach to coping with emotions. We can be stubbornly independent, determined to work through it on our own while projecting a cool and collected front to the world. Or we can let it all hang out. Sometimes we turn to family and friends, other times we join support groups. Some of us find comfort in faith, others seek help from a therapist or grief counselor. Some like rituals and ceremonies, others break with tradition and mourn in their own ways. There is no right or wrong way to grieve — it’s all a matter of what works for you.
However, many experts believe that a little self-care goes a long way towards helping us deal with grief. Making and maintaining social connections can help sustain us through the ordeal, giving us a chance to experience other emotions while we attend to the loss. Taking care of our bodies by eating well, exercising regularly and getting plenty of rest can also ensure we have the physical and emotional reserve we need to help us recover.
Grief takes time, and, unfortunately, there is no way to speed up the process. Like the incoming tide, it has its own rhythm and pulls. But, if you’re feeling like the tide has become an undertow, it might make sense to get a little help from a professional — a therapist, grief counselor, support group or even someone who has been there before. Signs that you might need some outside help include:
- You feel your grief slowly becoming entrenched depression,
- You start to feel that life isn’t worth living,
- You feel numb and disconnected from your life and loved ones,
- Grief prevents you from being able to do what you need to do each day, or
- You feel stuck in the process of grieving, unable to move beyond it.
And if you feel an urgent need or are afraid you might harm yourself, call:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
- National Hopeline Network: 800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433)
- Cancer Support Community’s Cancer Support Helpline: 888-793-9355
- American Cancer Society Cancer Helpline Cancer Helpline: 800.227.2345
- Crisis Support Services: 775-784-8090
Additional resources and information about grief and loss:
Cancer.Net: Coping with Grief
American Cancer Society: Grief and Bereavement
Cancer Support Community: Bereavement
University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center: Grief and Loss