Receiving a cancer diagnosis is accompanied by a range of emotions – from shock and confusion to fear and despair. Every single emotion that may come up is a normal and natural response to a major life change, and it’s important to accept and allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling in order to move through each stage.
You may have heard about The Five Stages Of Grief, a model of coping with loss created by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 based on her work with hundreds of patients diagnosed with a terminal illness. A similar model can be applied to the emotional journey of cancer, which we will explore in more detail below.
STAGE ONE: SHOCK & DENIAL
The first reaction to a cancer diagnosis is often disbelief. It can be difficult to take in the news, and you may feel like you are in a dream or nightmare. In extreme cases, the cancer patient might even go on “autopilot”, focusing on day-to-day activities and ignoring their diagnosis as much as possible.
According to a study, the prevalence of denial of diagnosis ranges anywhere from 4-47% in cancer patients. Elderly patients are more likely to deny their diagnosis, while neither patient gender nor cancer type seemed to play a role in the process.
While denying the reality may seem like an unwise coping mechanism, it can actually be a way of protecting yourself from the full emotional impact of the news. This is a normal response to an overwhelming situation and allows you to collect yourself before processing the information. As Kübler-Ross wrote in her book, she went in-depth about the five stages of grief, “Denial is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.”
The above-mentioned study about denial in cancer patients found that it had a profound effect on the psychological functioning of the patient – namely that it reduced distress if distractive strategies were used (such as focusing one’s attention on other parts of their life).
STAGE TWO: ANGER
The second stage is often characterized by feelings of anger. You may be mad at the cancer for invading your body, mad at your doctor for not catching it sooner, or even mad at yourself. It’s not uncommon to feel like you are losing control and that everything and everyone is against you.
This anger may manifest in different ways – some cancer patients may lash out at loved ones, while others may experience physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach pains. It’s important to acknowledge your anger and try to find healthy outlets for it, whether that means talking to a friend or writing in a journal. Some people even find it helpful to seek out cancer support groups, as they provide an outlet to share experiences and feelings with others who are going through a similar situation.
Remember that underneath the anger, there is pain. The pain is the source of the rage, and it’s okay to feel both.
STAGE THREE: BARGAINING
The third stage in the grieving process is often referred to as the “what if” stage. This is when patients start to wonder what they could have done differently to prevent their cancer. They may make promises to God or themselves, such as “If I beat this, I will never smoke again.”
Bargaining can be a way of regaining a sense of control. It’s a way of saying, “If I do X, then maybe Y will happen.” However, it’s important to keep in mind that cancer is not something that can be controlled. It’s not something that can be bargained with.
Furthermore, burdening yourself with “could haves” and “should haves” leads to feelings of guilt and regret. An important thing to always keep in the back of your mind is that nothing could ever prepare a person for a cancer diagnosis. It is a traumatic event that no one could have prevented, and it isn’t anyone’s fault.
STAGE FOUR: SADNESS AND DEPRESSION
The fourth stage of dealing with a cancer diagnosis is depression. This can manifest in many ways, such as with feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or numbness. You may feel like there’s nothing to look forward to, and you may struggle to find any sense of joy or meaning in your life. You may feel the urge to withdraw from your friends and family, or you may even experience changes in appetite and sleep habits.
These feelings are normal; they affect approximately 20% of cancer patients. Cancer can be incredibly overwhelming and scary, and it’s natural for patients to go through a period of adjustment as they adjust to their new reality.
But there is hope for getting through this stage.
Simple yet highly effective coping strategies, such as exercise and relaxation techniques, can help ease the symptoms of depression.
It’s also important to be mindful of the symptoms of depression and seek help if you feel like they are becoming overwhelming. This can be done through behavioral health therapy, counseling, a support group, or medication. Remember that there is no shame in reaching out for help – it takes great strength and courage to do so.
STAGE FIVE: ACCEPTANCE
Acceptance doesn’t mean that suddenly you feel like everything is okay. It does not mean that you are happy with your cancer diagnosis. Acceptance is simply acknowledgment and understanding – it’s recognizing that this is your new reality and learning to live with it.
As Kübler-Ross describes in her book, “Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones.”
All of the other emotions we’ve described above do not go away. They may lessen in intensity or become less frequent over time, but they will always be there. However, with acceptance comes a newfound sense of peace. You may find that you can better cope with your diagnosis and treatment. Your relationships may improve, and you may even start to feel hopeful again.
You become better equipped to make decisions about the future (such as cancer treatment and cancer care options) and the steps you need to take to get there.
TRANSITIONING BETWEEN STAGES
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the human psyche and mental health. You may find yourself experiencing the stages out of order, or you may move back and forth between them. For example, it’s not uncommon to feel anger after reaching depression and acceptance.
Additionally, some people may only experience a few stages, while others will go through all five. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel – everyone deals with their cancer diagnosis in their own unique way.
What’s important is that you allow yourself to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Don’t try to bottle up your emotions or push them away. Lean on your support system and allow yourself the time and space to grieve.
A cancer diagnosis takes a toll not only on the patient but on their loved ones as well. It’s a life-changing event that can be incredibly difficult to come to terms with.
If you or your loved one has recently been diagnosed with cancer, keep in mind that there is no single “right” way to cope. You will likely experience a range of emotions as you adjust to this new reality, but know that you are not alone.
The five emotional stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are a helpful framework for understanding what you may be going through. However, it’s important to remember that every cancer survivor experiences these emotions differently. There is no time limit on grief and no wrong way to feel.
Every day, scientists and researchers are working hard to improve the treatment experience and outcomes for those battling cancer. By donating to a cancer-fighting campaign, you can be an agent of change for those who are affected by this devastating disease. Take a look at our active campaigns to learn more about how you can get involved.