"I think for anybody going through any bad thing, we can give up. We might not ever smile again." Donna McNutt, Multiple Myeloma Survivor
Those first few moments, days and weeks after you’re told, “You have cancer,” can be some of the most difficult a person can experience. What many find is that going through cancer is not just about fighting to survive the disease itself — it is about surviving the flood of emotions you don’t expect will overwhelm you after diagnosis.
On Easter morning in 2015, after months of exhaustion and crippling pain in her ribcage, Donna McNutt sat on her bed, sapped of all energy and unable to move.
“I sat on my bed and literally could not even get clothes out of my closet to put on,” said McNutt, 55. “And I just said to my husband, ‘Can you take me to the hospital because I think something is wrong with me?’”
That hospital visit led to a whole series of tests and scans. McNutt says testing on her blood revealed around 85 percent of her cells were cancerous. Multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, had so infiltrated her system that several of her bones and organs were damaged. She was in terrible pain.
“I remember being so sick, literally hunched over on a bench, not able to lift my head or even make eye contact with anybody,” said McNutt about the period just after being diagnosed.
“In my head there was one part of me that was like, ‘Oh forget it,’ and another part said, ‘No, I’m still in here. I’m not going to forget it. I have to get up and walk,’” said McNutt. “It’s that fight we all have.”
Cancer can at first feel solitary
For patients like McNutt, a cancer diagnosis can at first feel like a solitary experience. It can seem as if your diagnosis is yours alone to cope with, and you might feel like giving up or isolating yourself from others.
But research has shown that social support — staying connected with your loved ones and keeping the lines of communication open with your support network — can make a real difference in helping to cope with the stresses brought on by diagnosis and treatment.
At City of Hope, our integrated, interdisciplinary supportive care cancer programs are designed to provide emotional support to prop up you and your family, no matter what stage you are in your cancer journey — and no matter what challenges come up for you, including:
After a cancer diagnosis, adults and young adults who have previously lived on their own sometimes choose to move back into their parent’s home temporarily. Do not think of moving in with your parents as giving up your independence, but as a way to ensure that your emotional, practical and financial needs will continue to be met during this difficult time. Be honest about your need for privacy and share your feelings and emotions with your parents. You may find them to be a strong source of emotional and practical support.
Watching a brother or sister face a cancer diagnosis is difficult for siblings of any age. They may want to help you in practical ways such as providing transportation to and from treatment or helping with household tasks. Encourage your siblings to talk openly with you. Let them know that they can support you by just taking the time to listen. Spend time together talking about subjects other than cancer.
Your friends may not have very much experience with cancer, and may not know how to respond. Do not be afraid to take the lead in reaching out to them. Be honest about what you need and what you feel like discussing. If your friends want to help, be specific in your requests such as running errands, providing transportation or preparing meals. Although some friendships may change during this time in your life, focus on friends who are able to listen to you and support you.
Most adults and young adults do not expect their spouse or significant other to be diagnosed with cancer. The fear of losing a loved one can be overwhelming. Sometimes this fear can drive an emotional wedge between partners. It is important for each of you to talk openly and honestly about your thoughts, feelings and fears. Remember, you do not need to always talk about cancer. Discussing day-to-day topics can help bring back a sense of normalcy to your lives.
For more information about how to address changing relationships and communicating with your loved ones about your experience please read the National Cancer Institute's Taking Time: Support for People with Cancer.