The Emotional Side Effects of Cancer

Throughout the many stages of our lives, there will be moments in which our physical wellness is tested. Whether it be due to troubles in our youth, to the journeys of building families and careers, to facing diagnoses or unexpected losses, life has a way of presenting us with challenges that force us to build courage, compassion and grace. Yet an often-unspoken side effect of these traumas can be the impact they have on our mental health – a subject that up until recently has felt more taboo than tactful to discuss openly.

In truth, the emotional side effects of stress, cancer and illness are frequently overlooked. Rarely visible from the outside, they often get discarded or disregarded for other, more pressing or obvious challenges. Our community finds its strength through open dialogue, empathy and outreach. So, let's take a moment to explore this silent struggle that so many of us endure.

Processing the Impact 

Sometimes when a traumatic experience takes place, we don’t allow ourselves the time or capacity to grieve — to truly mourn — all that has occurred. We fail to fully acknowledge what has been taken from us or the loss of ‘normalcy’ in our daily lives. We all probably know people who have taken bad news and turned it around in stride — positivity warriors who seemingly can’t be broken. But it turns out, failing to grieve a loss, especially a personal one, has very real, negative consequences to our health. When we don’t allow ourselves to feel our emotions, our bodies can pathologize them later. According to research, efforts to avoid grief usually show up physically as fatigue, a weakened immune system and depression. Bottom line? Emotions matter. Our pain is real. Feeling denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are uncomfortable, but avoiding them doesn’t work either. When the rug gets pulled out from under us, it’s OK to sit back and catch our breath for a minute or two.

Treatment and Our Emotional Health

When dealing with cancer or other health challenges, formulating a plan and navigating treatment, medications, doctors and scans is complex and deeply personal. There is no right or wrong way to feel about this process. Confusion, shame, fear and anxiety are completely normal. Our emotional health is going to need extra time and attention. Self-care is more than bubble baths and nights in. It can also look like:

  • Ignoring calls when we’re not ready to talk about our decisions.
  • Setting expectations and deciding how we’d like to hear medical information after scans.
  • Asking a loved one to return messages for us and act as a liaison.
  • Binge watching mindless programs to give our thinking brains a break.

Protecting Our Emotional Capacity

Any type of treatment and recovery varies from person to person. Often times, the process involves periods of unknowns, fears of recurrence and changes that are personal and difficult to explain, even within our private circle. In order to maintain respectful and appropriate relationships with people, we must master the art of setting boundaries. Boundary setting helps us consider how much information to divulge and how to preserve our energy for the most important parts of our lives. It can feel awkward at first, but setting boundaries with loved ones, acquaintances and even medical professionals puts our mental health first.

Asking for Help

Some of us may be our family’s “go-to” problem solver. We may be the neighbor who always helps out, or the leader of our own company. It can often feel abnormal to be the one asking for help, but emotional stress has real, physiological impacts on our recovery. And when stress leads to clinical depression, it can make it more difficult to sleep, process information, remember important dates and or follow the advice of doctors — all critical aspects to finding wellness again. In fact, studies indicate that patients are more likely to survive breast cancer than those who suffer from untreated depression. We want to repeat this message again, louder, for the girls in the back who never ask for help: It is OK to be vulnerable and need support. Mental health professionals are there to offer emotional resources, help establish coping strategies for anxiety and manage the day-to-day stress of life beyond illness. 

As we navigate the healing process for our bodies, it’s critical not to overlook or deny the quality of our mental health. Our powerful minds deserve love, respect and compassion. Pausing to nurture our emotional and psychological wellbeing truly is self-care — not to mention medically and scientifically significant. For both ourselves and for those who love us, prizing mental wellness is a key part of recovery and deserves just as much care as physical healing.

“We run from grief because loss scares us, yet our hearts reach toward grief because the broken parts want to mend.” – Brené Brown