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Understanding How Cancer Patients Cope

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

I spoke with a friend of mine the other day. Her son of 35 was diagnosed with colon cancer a short time ago. Not only that, but they also found three lesions in his liver indicating that the cancer had metastasized (spread) there as well.

He is now undergoing a brutal course of chemotherapy. As a result of future surgeries he will have to endure he will no longer be able to do the job which he so loves and has done for over a decade now.

As a two-time cancer survivor myself I can understand all too well what that is like. As we spoke, she indicated that despite wanting to understand what he was going through and how he was feeling that she truly could not.

That too is something which is easy for me to understand. Having empathy is not the same as truly understanding their experience.

Cancer affects each individual differently. I refer not to what type of cancer one may have or at what point they received their diagnosis, but how it affects them emotionally. I firmly believe however that no one comes away from cancer unscathed.

We are never the same after having survived cancer. There are survivors whose lives are changed very little while for others, their lives will never be the same.

I have heard many cancer survivors say that having gone through cancer has taught them to learn their true priorities. I believe this to be true, but having learned your priorities does not always mean you will be in a position to fulfill them.

Both my chemotherapy and radiation caused significant and permanent physical damage from which I will never recover. My purpose in mentioning this is one area which patient’s diagnosed with cancer are not warned about nor do others think about -- having to grieve the loss of who we once were.

As I mentioned, cancer and the side effects and/or complications of treatment can affect people differently but inevitably there will be some aspect of who or what they were which they will need to mourn.

The psychological issues encountered are something that even the best oncologist is simply not qualified to deal with. There are those who still function from a place which implies that any issues other than being alive are insignificant and that being alive is what the patient should be focusing on.

This only leaves the patient feeling demeaned and their feelings minimized. They believe they must be doing something wrong if they are having these feelings. But this emanates from the fact that nobody ever told them that this was normal.

What these individuals, and you don’ t have to be a doctor to think this way, fail to consider are three little words which can make all the difference in the world -- quality of life. And you don’ t have to be a doctor to think this way, many cancer survivors run into this with people they know.

In the case of my friend, she now has a better understanding of this since her son brought it up in conversation. He told her that at this point he simply could not deal with these feelings. Eventually, he will.

What people often don’t understand is that before you can move forward, you must move backward. We must move through what allowed us to even get through the treatments we did.

We all have fears, concerns and other issues yet we so often must suppress all of these in order to sustain the emotional strength to get through treatment and all the side effects.

It isn’t until after treatments are completed and we are not longer running from one visit to another that we begin to realize the sum total of all that has just transpired. Once it dawns on us all that we have lost -- which can run the gamut from financial to physical and emotional -- we are in essence faced with grieving a death -- our own. That part of the life we knew and will never know again.


"The Human Side of Cancer: Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty - By Jimmie C. Holland, MD, and Sheldon Lewis." The Human Side of Cancer: Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty - By Jimmie C. Holland, MD, and Sheldon Lewis. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2012.

“Any Mother’s Daughter - One Woman’s Lifelong Struggle with HPV”, Bonnie Diraimondo, Authorhouse 2010, Web. 16, Jan. 2012.

Reviewed January 16, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.