You made it through the ordeal of cancer — from shock to hope to victory over the disease — and reclaimed your life. Then you go for a checkup and, in an instant, your world is blown to bits again. The disease has returned.
All the emotions that assaulted you at the original diagnosis strike again. You find yourself cycling through the same stages of cancer grief — anxiety, depression, guilt, anger, hopelessness, fear — and they may hit even harder now than they did the first time around.
Though the personal impact of your diagnosis may feel overwhelming, there are some effective ways to navigate these rough emotional seas.
There’s now a body of evidence demonstrating that a daily practice of mindfulness or meditation is a powerful antidote to anxiety. At its most basic it’s a way to calm both body and mind by following the breath and detaching from your thoughts. In most areas, there are groups you can join where you can learn techniques and practice with others. Or you can find online audios and videos that will guide you through the process at home.
Another great way to release tension is to put on music you love and sing or dance the stress away. Or do something that takes you out of yourself and gives you pleasure — see a movie, lose yourself in a good book, get out in nature, spend time with good friends or do volunteer work to help others during their difficult times.
It’s only normal to experience deep sadness when you learn the cancer has returned, and you can allow yourself to go through those feelings without having to put on a false front. At the same time, though, if the sadness doesn’t relent after a couple of weeks, or you find yourself slipping into a deeper depression — unable to eat or sleep, having prolonged crying jags or self-destructive thoughts — talk to your doctor. It may be purely emotional, but sometimes the disease or treatment is actually at the root of depression. Whatever the reason, both medical and psychological help are available.
Letting Go of Guilt and Anger
According to the National Cancer Institute, “We can’t know why cancer returns in some people and not others.” Yet it’s human nature to look for blame.
After a relapse your anger may be directed at your doctor, though he or she most likely provided the best treatment suitable for you at that time. Still, you can reassure yourself about your next course of treatment by getting a second opinion on the options available to you now.
Guilt is also a common reaction to relapse. Maybe you blame yourself for not following instructions as precisely as you could have, or perhaps you wish you’d seen the doctor sooner. But the most important thing is to let go and forgive yourself and others, so you can devote your energy to healing.
A relapse can destroy the hope that originally kept you motivated as you underwent treatment, with all its accompanying fatigue, side effects and stress. But the good news is that treatments are continually evolving and improving. Advanced therapies and trials may be available now that weren’t when you were originally diagnosed. And keep in mind that more people are surviving cancer now than ever before. In fact, thanks to new developments in immunotherapy, many cancers are now being seen as chronic diseases that can be managed.
Facing Your Fears
Yes, a relapse is usually more serious than your first bout with cancer, and remission may be more difficult or even impossible to attain. Though facing this is never easy, you need to discuss the realities of your condition honestly with your physician, so that you can assess which fears are exaggerated and which you need to confront.
For some, this may even mean coming to terms with the end of life. There may be nothing more difficult to face, but knowledge paves the way for taking action, and action is a powerful way to counter fear. Get your affairs in order, deepen your relationships, explore the spiritual side of life, and enjoy all that you love in life with renewed appreciation.
Most important of all — know that you’re not alone. City of Hope has excellent psychologist or social workers, who are trained to help you cope with emotional side of cancer. And at their Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center
, you’ll find support groups, where you can share your concerns and feelings with people who are in or have emerged from the crisis you’re undergoing. The center also offer a range of activities that can make the emotional journey far easier, including music and art therapy, yoga, massage and meditation.
Your best resource, though, may be yourself. You’ve been through this before — and you can do it again.