The Dreaded Feelings Factor: Processing Your Emotions During The Big C

Growing up, I sometimes wondered what it would feel like to hear, “You have cancer.” I remember watching movies and TV shows where the character sat in an office and some cute doctor in a lab coat dropped the C-bomb. I always studied the character’s face to watch how he reacted; how would it feel to get that news?

Spoiler alert: it sucks.

At that moment, for me, the air felt thick and heavy. I saw spots on the wall. My stomach lurched. The woman delivering the news sounded distant and incoherent, like she was underwater. Like I got transported to another dimension, one where nothing made sense.

Then the diagnosis slowly seeps down over your body, like a terrifying layer of mortal sludge, and the tears come. And the fears come. And the next part of your life begins, the one where you realize you might die a lot earlier than you expected.

You start sharing the news with family and friends (and in my case, post on social media and start writing a book and basically never stop talking about it). Most of the time, you’re scared. You have an omnipresent rope of dread around your neck. But you have a few moments where you laugh at a joke or enjoy a nice Girl Scout cookie and forget for a nanosecond and things are OK. Then the news comes rushing back and that rope tightens again.

It’s a rollercoaster. And it makes you feel a little nutty.

Your friends and family, who are also panic-stricken, genuinely want to help. But in reality, other than listen to you, and be there for you, and cheer you up, there’s nothing they can do to fix your cancer diagnosis. It’s your burden to bear. Still, it’s wonderful to receive their love, reassurance, and empathy. Support and community are strong weapons during a cancer battle.

Sprinkled among their words of support will probably be things like, “Stay positive!” and “You got this!” and other sentiments encouraging you not to dwell on depression and anxiety. 

That’s nice to hear. But what about the feelings in your gut - the ones that whisper, “You might not make it. This isn’t fair. How did this happen?”

Should you bury that down? Ignore it? Diminish it? Pretend it’s not there? Let it out in small doses, like when you accidentally shake a bottle of soda so you slowly twist the cap and teeny spurts of air slip out?

Here’s the thing: I discovered if you try and stay positive and skip over the fear, depression, anxiety, resentment, they don’t go away - they still exist and slither into a quieter, more remote part of your psyche. And they become like an emotional Voldemort, just gathering strength and gaining power until…BOOM! They’ll explode and you’ll find yourself in the midst of a very fiery meltdown/ breakdown.

So, what to do?

Well, processing and coping look different for everyone. My personal methodology developed into a blueprint that’s something like this:

Acknowledge your feelings and emotions.

Don’t minimize the chaos running through your brain. Accept it. Sit in it. Say, “Oh hi, despair and hopelessness, nice to see you.” Know that it’s OK to feel this way. I remember going out to dinner one night while in the midst of chemo, and my girlfriend asked how I was. “Awful. Terrible. Absolutely miserable,” I replied. “Yeah, of course,” she said, “You’re allowed to feel that way. It’s OK to feel that way.” She was right. It sucked to feel that way, but it was OK. I gave myself permission to have those feelings - and that in itself made me feel a little better.

Let it all out.

Have you ever had a bad day at work, and you need to come home and vent? We all have. There’s something cleansing and satisfying and healing about releasing the buildup of frustration in your gut. After you acknowledge your feelings, it’s time to release them. Get them out. Vacate those prickly buggers. Cry. Cry some more. Talk about it. Post on social media. Write about it. Purge it out.

Pick yourself up.

And after the purge, it’s time to reboot and recharge. Do whatever you gotta do to make yourself feel better. Eat cheese. Buy some shoes. Watch “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion” for the millionth time. (Don’t judge, it’s a great film.) Eat more cheese. Go to brunch or a comedy show. Throw on a rainbow wig and embrace your inner RuPaul.

At the end of the day, burying and ignoring the unpleasant emotions becomes counterproductive. Your most growth and healing will stem from those dark moments. The darkness gives weight, meaning, and context to the light – and I promise that will eventually come.