Sharing your feelings about cancer
A cancer diagnosis often leads to many different emotions. These can be overwhelming for both you and your loved ones. Sharing and talking can help everyone cope with these feelings that are part of the cancer journey.
For many reasons, it can be hard to talk about your feelings. You may:
- not be used to talking about personal and private feelings
- have no idea how to begin
- feel awkward
- not know what to say or what words to use
- worry that you’ll lose control and start crying
- have been raised with the belief that talking about feelings of sadness, anger or fear is not appropriate or is a sign of weakness
- think (mistakenly) that having or talking about sad or negative emotions will make the cancer worse or treatment less effective
- not want to upset other people or have people worry about you
Sometimes, you may simply not be ready to share your feelings about cancer.
Even though it can be hard, it’s a good idea to talk about your feelings instead of keeping them inside. Hiding your feelings can use up energy that you need to deal with the cancer in day-to-day life. Talking about and sharing how you feel can help you:
- feel better and more in control
- relieve stress
- feel less alone or isolated
- understand your feelings and make them seem less overwhelming or strange
- better understand what you think or feel
- increase trust and strengthen your bonds with others
- make other conversations easier
- teach your children how to express their feelings
- let people know that they can help and be supportive
You can help someone start sharing their feelings about cancer by asking them if they’re thinking about the cancer diagnosis or if they’re ready to talk about it. For example you might say:
- “I know you’re scared and worried about what might happen, but so am I. Can we talk about it together?”
Sometimes, people need some time before they’re ready to talk and share feelings. And sometimes people may not be ready to listen when you want to talk.
- If you aren’t ready to talk, you can say, “I don’t feel like talking about this right now. Maybe we can talk later.”
- If you feel you aren’t ready to listen, you can say, “I don’t feel I can listen right now, but I do want to at some point. Can we talk a bit later?”
Some people find it hard to say that they’d like to talk, so you may need to watch for other signs or hints, such as:
- talking about a newspaper article or television show they have seen about cancer or a new cancer treatment
- spending more time around you
- starting conversations about cancer, but changing the topic quickly
- acting differently, such as being nervous or trying to help you more than usual
Some people try to protect loved ones by hiding worries or difficult emotions behind smiles. Spending lots of energy hiding your feelings doesn’t leave you a lot of energy for dealing with cancer in your day-to-day life. When you’re living with cancer, you have many reasons to be upset, scared or angry.
- You don’t need to pretend that you are cheerful when you’re not.
- Try to talk about all of your feelings, not just the happy ones.
- Strong emotions, like anger, fear, shame or helplessness can be hard to discuss. Many people are very uncomfortable with these feelings.
Well-meaning relatives or friends may think that they have to keep everything focused on the positive and act very cheerful with you. Unfortunately, this can make you feel more alone and isolated because you may feel that they don’t want to hear your worries or fears about your cancer. You might want to say:
- “I’ve noticed that you’re trying very hard to be brave and positive, but sometimes I don’t feel very brave. What about you?”
- “Sometimes, when you’re so cheerful, I think that you don’t really want to hear about how I’m feeling. That makes me feel alone when you are here.”
The following tips may help when it’s time to talk about feelings.
- Find someone who is easy to talk to and share your feelings with.
- Remember there is no right or wrong way to feel. You are allowed to feel however you like.
- Talk when you feel like talking. You may want to talk on some days, but not on others.
- Say that you don’t know exactly what you’re feeling, if that’s the case. Sometimes it’s hard to find the words for how you feel.
- Try to use words to describe your feelings, rather than acting them out. Being rude, shouting or slamming doors can stop a conversation and make others feel bad. Describing your feelings by saying something like, “Today I’m feeling really angry about being diagnosed with cancer,” can lead to a conversation and better understanding.
- Don’t feel that you have to say something all the time.
- Try not to fill silence with words or be uncomfortable with silence. Silence can help people pull their thoughts together. Give people time to find their own words.
- Recognize that other people’s emotions may be different from the ones that you are feeling.
- Acknowledge other people’s feelings. If a person says, “I’m really worried,” you might try saying, “That must be very hard for you sometimes,” or “I can understand that,” rather than “Oh, don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine.”
- Don’t be afraid to cry. Strong feelings around cancer are completely normal. Tears can often say more than words.
- Don’t be afraid of strong emotions like anger or fear.
- Be open to humour and laughter. It can often help break tension or bring people closer together, especially if you’ve used humour as a way to cope in the past.
- Remember that you can say that you don’t know what’s going to happen or how you are going to cope.
- Tell people how much they mean to you and that it’s important to you to have them in your life.
If you find it hard to talk, there are other ways that you can share your feelings. Some people find it easier to explain their feelings in writing or other ways, including:
- social media or online blogs
- Some people find it easier to share their thoughts online, and allow others to read them, without having to repeat themselves to different people.
- sharing a journal
- With a shared notepad, people can write down their feelings, and read others’ feelings, without having to speak aloud.
- songs, poetry and stories
- You can write songs or poetry, or find some written by others, that express your feelings to share with others.
- painting, drawing or sculpture
Sometimes people just want someone to be physically present to:
- sit quietly together
- hold hands
- have a shoulder to cry on or cry together
If you find it difficult to talk about your feelings with people close to you, and this worries you, it might be helpful to try the following:
- Talk with people who are not family or close friends.
- Contact your cancer centre support program.
- Join a cancer support group or online support group.
- Connect with people who have been through the experience of cancer (peer support volunteers).
- Speak with a counsellor or social worker.
It can be tiring and stressful telling different people the same news over again each time. It may be helpful to choose someone you trust to communicate for you as your own personal spokesperson. This person can let people know how you’re doing and where you are in the cancer journey. You can tell them what you’d like other people to know and how much detail to share.
This person may be the one you ask to make phone calls, write emails or post updates on social media. They may also help you respond to the emails and phone calls, if you’re too tired or not feeling up to doing this alone.
Support from someone who has ‘been there’
The Canadian Cancer Society’s peer support program is a telephone support service that matches cancer patients and their caregivers with specially trained volunteers.