Emotionally: Numbness, shock, fear, anger, guilt, confusion, grief and helplessness are some of the feelings that affect a cancer survivor. Although, I don't want to ignore some of the positive feelings one may also experience. Cancer survivors may experience feeling more loved, grateful and empowered after their diagnosis.
As humans, we have the ability to experience a full range of emotions. However, along the way, we have learned to express and accept the 'either/or' way of feeling. For example: If someone is talking about their grief regarding the death of a loved one, people are quick to respond, "Be grateful for the time you had with him/her (Just a side note: I have heard this commonly with couples, who have been married for decades. Most of their life was attached and witnessed by their partner. Does one really believe their pain is any less because they had so many years with their beloved partner?) We can be grateful and grieving. We don't have to choose. As a cancer survivor, you have the right to feel what you feel. You can be scared and hopeful! Our ability to face and address our very complex feelings is part of our innate ability to heal. We wouldn't know joy without pain, hope without despair. It is helpful to give and receive permission to feel YOUR feelings.
Mentally: Distracted, confused, forgetful, tired, 'chemo brain', worry and more worry are common mental changes. Cancer survivors often feel frustrated with themselves because they can't function like they normally do. They may notice changes in their job performance, household tasks, or even in their relationships. Self-compassion can alleviate some of the stress associated with these symptoms. People assume self-compassion is easy. However, compare the negative thoughts against the positive, encouraging messages you hear from yourself daily? Self-compassion often needs to be learned and requires much practice. (Check out my resource page for self-compassion and other cancer support resources)
Physically: Similar to the full range of emotions one experiences with a cancer diagnosis, he/she can also experience a full range of physical changes, depending on the diagnosis. I hesitate to list all of the symptoms because you already know them. You are experiencing them. There can be grief attached to the changes in physical abilities and performance with a cancer diagnosis. It is important to process the individual and secondary losses (unable to drive, loss of job, loss of hobbies, friendships or enjoyable activities etc) associated with your diagnosis. Validation and finding compassionate support are invaluable resources as you process these changes and losses.
Spirituality: People can either gain strength in their spiritual-religious beliefs after receiving a cancer diagnosis or question them, possibly even experiencing anger. People tend to feel shameful and/or confused about these questions or spiritual conflicts. It can be very validating and empowering to share these conflicts with a safe, non judgmental person. Learning and understanding that this is a healthy and normal part of one's experience, when faced with a significant life challenge, can be liberating and freeing. It can also provide the healing needed to re-connect with your beliefs, possibly even forming a deeper relationship than before your diagnosis.
Socially/Family: People learn the most about their support system during times of loss, struggles and challenges. Interesting, huh? You can either see the best or worst from people, often being surprised by who 'show's up'. It can be tough for both the cancer survivor and their support system. We tend to have established roles, ways of communicating and formed expectations within relationships. A cancer diagnosis or another significant life event, can rattle that old way of functioning. It's almost like everyone starts speaking another language. Each person affected (and cancer affects the WHOLE family and support system) is trying to express their needs and interpret the needs of others, based on this new language. It can be a very confusing and frustrating time which can lead to feeling misunderstood and alone, when trying to give or receive support.
A good example of this is: Many cancer survivors go into 'survivor' mode when initially diagnosed. They decide on the treatment and medical team. They take the medication. They get the scans, tests and blood work completed. Then, they receive the good news that their prognosis is improving and treatment ends or decreases. This should be a time of celebrating, right? Most often, families think so. However, many cancer survivors are not quite there, yet. Since they were in 'survival mode', many never had time or energy to deal with their emotions. Now, that treatment is done, the emotions flood their system. This is the time they start reflecting and facing all that they have experienced. Sometimes, cancer survivors report feeling more vulnerable after treatment ends because they are not doing anything to 'fight it'. There may be an increase in anxiety and worries about the 'what ifs'. This is an imperative time to learn stress management and coping tools which emphasize relaxation, empowerment and a sense of control. Providing a space to grieve all the losses of past, present and future (dreams and hopes) can be an important step in healing.
Understanding the holistic impact of a diagnosis provides validation to the many mixed, overwhelming and ambiguous feelings one experiences. It is also a reminder that focus should not only be placed on the physical aspect of a diagnosis or illness. Other areas of our 'self' tend to get neglected when dealing with physical issues. When we respond to our needs with a holistic understanding and perspective, we can impact our support and healing on a much deeper level.