The Emotions of a Cancer Diagnosis

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Article by Wendy McCance

Over the years, I have known several people who have had cancer.  No matter how close I might have been to them, there are many questions I didn’t feel right asking them and a lot of information I just didn’t know or fully understand.

What I always wanted to understand the most was how, deep down, the disease really affected them emotionally.  Were they scared, regretful of not doing more before they were diagnosed, did they feel they could fight through their disease or could they tell that fighting wouldn’t help them? These are such deeply personal questions that I just couldn’t ask. Of course everyone must have different answers based on individual personality, the type of cancer, what stage they are in and so forth.  Even so, it would have been nice to have connected on a more personal level.  I felt I was never there the way I could have been because I just didn’t understand what they were experiencing physically or emotionally and I didn’t know how to do more without feeling like I was invading very personal and private space.

I am in the very early stages of having cancer and there are still many questions that plague my own mind.  What I have figured out so far is that I hope family and friends never feel uncomfortable asking me the tough questions.  It’s just another part of who I am and I want to remain close with those I love.  Part of being close is for those around me to truly understand who I am, how I am dealing with what is in front of me and feeling comfortable having conversations with me that no one ever wants to have.

I have been struggling to find my own balance to come to conclusions that are satisfactory for my own life.  When I was first diagnosed, the hardest thing for me to work on was my fear.  I was so incredibly overwhelmed that I cried all the time.  The fact that multiple myeloma is not a cancer that can be cured and has a short lifespan didn’t help my state of mind much.

Of all of the things for me to be most concerned with in the beginning, my biggest worry was, how do I present myself as someone who is strong and unafraid?  It seems that the comments you hear again and again from family and friends of the patients is how strong they are, how they never show fear, how they are able to take it all in stride, how impressed everyone is with their ability to stay so calm and determined to power through.

Talk about pressure.  I felt like a failure at handling a cancer diagnosis because I was so scared and wanted to talk through the fear.  I felt like I was letting those around me down because I couldn’t mask my feelings very well.  It made me wonder how many other people felt the same way when confronted with such a hideous diagnosis.  Where did these patients find the strength?  Why was I already failing so badly when I hadn’t even started treatment?

Months have passed and the intensity of my feelings have calmed down quite a bit.  My latest worry centers around the burden aspect of having cancer.  I am having trouble wrapping my head around the financial and emotional toll my health will take on the family.  I have had times in my life where money has been scarce and I don’t want to leave that burden on my own family.  It’s one thing to go through a tough time and be able to help dig out.  It’s quite another when you are sick and dependent on those around you to do all the digging while you are unable to help.  It’s even worse knowing it’s your fault the situation even exists.

I get anxious thinking about the family as caregivers and having to help me, worry about me and feel drained emotionally because of me.  I realized early on that if I had a curable cancer, I could see fighting it.  I could drain a bank account and not feeling as guilty about getting some help because there was a much better chance that I would get through it all and live many years in which I could show my gratitude, help dig out and be there for everyone else.

When you hear that there is no cure for your cancer, that once you begin treatment the odds are that you will live for 5 years and that those years will be spent sick in bed, you begin to question why you should go through the treatments at all.

Obviously I still have a lot to figure out.  I want to know more about what others with multiple myeloma have gone through.  I want to find out if they felt it was worth it.  Would they have just lived their life without treatment if they could go back and do it again?

My doctor told me early on that once treatment began, the normal course would be to do chemo and then a stem cell transplant if I was strong enough to handle it.  I read up on what it would be like and this is where I began to wonder about the value of having treatment.  After you have been sick on chemo, you are put in isolation in the hospital for the transplant.  You are in the hospital for one to two months.  After you get out, it takes nine months to a year before you begin to feel like your old self.  Along the way, you can have serious side effects including organ damage. Once home, you need to have a caregiver and the house has to be prepped to minimize the chance of getting ill.  Most of the year is spent either away from everyone isolated or sick in bed.  If the statistics are right and 5 years is the norm, how can you take a full year of being sick and isolated from others?  Of course this is if all goes well and there are no complications either.

I am just grazing over the surface of what I might have to experience, but the bottom line is, it’s a lot of money, it’s people having to readjust big portions of their life just to accommodate my own needs, it’s isolation from those I love for weeks, it’s being sick for a good year etc…

How could I possibly put anyone through this?  How could I live with myself?  It all sound so selfish and self-serving and I just don’t know if I can go there.

I will continue to get information on what to expect and how others have handled it, and thankfully this is not an immediate issue for me.  It’s just hard to look into the future and try to prepare your choices when you are currently feeling pretty good and the decisions all sound so miserable.

Wendy McCance

Wendy McCance is a Michigan based freelance writer and social media consultant. Wendy has gained attention as the founder of the popular blog Searching for the Happiness which can be viewed in 9 local papers online, including the Oakland Press. The combination of writing skills and social media knowledge is what makes Wendy such a powerhouse to work with. Stay tuned for opportunities to advertise, guest post and as always, have your questions answered.

To contact Wendy McCance about a writing or social media assignment, interview or speaking engagement, please email her at: mccance.wendy@gmail.com

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15 thoughts on “The Emotions of a Cancer Diagnosis

  1. Hi Wendy-Just now getting caught up on my reading. I am so sorry to hear about your cancer diagnosis. I’ve watched a few friends go through cancer and other serious illnesses, and what struck me is there is so much pressure on people with illnesses to be constantly upbeat, constantly positive and an “inspiration” to others. I think it’s important for people to just…be.

    One of them asked me, “Can’t I just have a bad day once in awhile?” I loved her honesty.

    I love the honesty of your post. one of my friends went thru a stem cell transplant for an aggressive form of lupus, and you are asking yourself the questions you need to ask. Experience has shown me that the only person who knows what they can handle and what their family can handle is the person themselves.

    It sounds like you have a great support system and a good medical team, and of course, you have your readers 🙂

    • Elaine, thank you so much for your comment, it really made day. I am so sorry you have people close to you who are fighting such illnesses and I wish them the very best. It’s wonderful when I get the kind of feedback I have received from you. Getting another perspective on what someone has witnessed or personally dealt with is always comforting. It makes me feel so much more normal going through the emotions I have been having. Thank you for taking the time to write.

  2. When I first found out I had cancer, finding a lump the size of a walnut in my breast at age 27, my first thought was,” I’m going to die!”

    So I understand the questions your asking and also the need to talk about it. My doctor told me that one of his patients fought cancer for a year or so and in all that time the word or disease was never mentioned between them. I was very glad that I could talk to my husband about cancer, about the future. We could face the truth; I could say, “What if I die?”

    I trusted God knew what He was doing in my life, so I felt a peace about my illness — even when I was being wheeled down for surgery. (I was going into the unknown; I wouldn’t find out until I woke up if the doctors had done a lumpectomy or a mastectomy.) I attribute that calmness to the nearness of God that morning.

    But, yeah, those questions do need to be faced and it’s great if people don’t avoid them, if they know you have to talk about this. There came a time when I realized I wasn’t going to die — then I had to ask, “How will I live with this?”

    Some people do enjoy good health through their 80s and 90s and die relatively quickly, as with pneumonia or a heart attack. A lot of folks are in the same boat as we are: they possibly will be sick a long while; someone will have to care for them. But who can say? Even the perfectly healthy young man who heads out on the highway on his motorbike and misses a turn or skids. He wakes up a paraplegic, or quadriplegic, needing constant, expensive care.

    I believe at some point it’s our turn to help and at some point it’s our turn to be helped. We’ll just frustrate our helpers and make them feel bad if we can’t accept their kindness, though it’s hard to do. Life doesn’t deal us kings and aces just because that’s what we want, but if we play the best we can with the hand life deals us, we’ve done the best we could.

    I hope you find the answers you need for these tough questions, so you can accept and live with whatever the future brings you & yours.

    • Christine,thank you so much for such a beautifully written comment. I am so sorry you can relate all too well to what I wrote about. I feel incredibly lucky to have this blog to put these thoughts out into the world. People like you have helped me work through these questions more than I can ever express. Wishing you the very best health and immense amounts of joy in your life. Thanks again for your comment.

  3. Thank you for this post, I remember when my dad was told he had lung cancer, I would loved to have asked him how he really felt and how he was really coping but when anyone raised the topic he would say I am ok love, I am doing well, don’t worry about me, I will be ok so never got a truthful answer because dad didn’t want his family to worry.

    • Joanne, thank you so much for sharing your experience. I am so sorry cancer has touched your family’s life. I understand your father reacting the way he did, it is so very difficult to see those you love worry and see them scared for what is going on. It’s only natural to want to comfort them. In my situation, I have been reprimanded by my kids when they see me hurting and I try to shrug it off. It seems to be worse for them not to get acknowledgement that I am not comfortable. They just want to love and take care of me and it’s almost like I am denying them that ability when I say I’m fine when I’m not. Even though I am at the beginning of my illness, I do know I will be as open as possible about what is going on and try not to be a complainer, just an acknowledger of what is happening. I think it’s what might help everyone involved the most.

  4. Oh my, sweet Wendy. My heart is touched and goes out to you. I can feel your anxiousness and struggle for answers and direction. It’s hard to come face-to-face with our own mortality knowing that what we really want can’t be taken by someone else.

    The love and support is vital and so is the medical guidance and treatment but, ultimately, it’s something only we can feel in our bodies and the experience is ours.

    I don’t know if anything I say will help, as my experience with cancer was not the same as what you’re going through, and you’ve heard some of my story before. I remember how I felt and the emotions and numbness. There was more churning on the inside than the diagnosis I had just received. I remember the diagnosis just triggered it.

    I had a tumor just inside the opening of my nose. It was called squamous cell carcinoma and I was sent from one specialist to another. At first, they were trying to determine, because of the location, the best course of treatment and if surgery was the direction to take. Because of how many centimeters surrounding the tumor to safely remove, it was possible half my nose would be taken off. They opted for just radiation and chemo instead.

    That probably sounds like a much better option than the cancer you’re faced with but, again, more was churning on the inside that I was feeling. It wasn’t until my acupuncturist confronted me with a question that I then came face-to-face with my own mortality. He said and asked, “Pat, you’re at a crossroads in your life and what is happening is actually a gift from the universe. You can either choose to live or to die and either way it would be okay. So, what do you choose?”

    At that point, it hit me in my soul that this was true and the cancer diagnosis no longer seemed as important. What I was faced with at this crossroads is what I somehow came to terms with on the inside. I remember I broke down and cried, hard, in his office. He looked for an answer and honestly, I couldn’t say I wanted to live or die. I just didn’t want my life to continue the way it had been and keep spinning worthlessly.

    Apparently, something inside me at that moment must have chosen to live, as I’m still here, and I managed the chemo and 33 daily radiation regime with a renewed strength and encouragement. I was working in corporate at the time and would go for my radiation treatments on my lunch hour and then go back to work. As they progressed, I remember there was some discomfort with some burning on my face and lips but, again, I felt like I was in good hands.

    Along about this time when going through my treatments, the company I worked for had announced a corporate restructuring. I remember being on a mandatory conference call on one of my vacation chemo days and we were told our jobs were being outsourced to Texas. So, soon I would be out of a job.

    I’m telling you all of this to tenderly give you encouragement and say that whatever we face in this life, we’re not left alone in it and it’s not more than we can handle. For me, what I learned is that our bodies are screaming at us to get our attention to address deeper issues — some of them more important than life and death.

    Even though, no one on the outside can take this from you, there is a source on the inside of you that knows exactly what is happening and exactly what you need and how to get that to you. I was brought face-to-face with that and could no longer ignore it and look for answers on the outside. The help I needed was on the inside.

    A part of me wanted to die but a greater part of me wanted to live. Don’t kill the messenger, get the message and be with it. It’s only for you and only you can hear it. There is much Divine love being poured on you right now. Oh, my dear, I can feel it for you and it transcends this world and beyond — it’s a gift that is freely given.

    All my love and prayers go out to you, my dearest friend. May God be with you in your quietest moments and whisper his love and strength to you.

    • Thank you so much for sharing something so very personal Pat. As always, you are a great source of comfort. I feel so grateful to know people like you who are willing to really lay it all out there and share points of view I might not have thought of. The part where you mentioned do you want to live or do you want to die struck me too. It does give you a new way to think about what you are facing. Feeling lucky to get such good feedback. I needed someone to give me some additional perspective. Thank you.

  5. Good authentic from-the-heart stuff from you again. Thanks…
    FYI, I saw the recent Bradley Cooper movie, ‘Burnt’, yesterday; and I was touched by how the transition from ‘Being Controlling’ to ‘Feeling Supported’ was unveiled. Perhaps the movie will speak to & connect with you in positive ways as ‘Well’.
    Take Care-*-> … Virtual Online Friend …

  6. As a fellow Michigan freelance writer, I am so sorry to hear about your cancer diagnosis. I hope that you find the right treatments and that your medical team helps you successfully navigate the challenges ahead of you. I think you are a fabulous writer! May you have many more years to share your writing with the world!

    • Thank you Mera, I truly appreciate the kind words. I have been very lucky in that I have a wonderful oncologist and 2 good hospitals close by that treat my type of cancer. There is also the support of Gilda’s club which I highly recommend to anyone facing cancer or for supporting someone with the disease.

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