Cancer & Caregiver Emotions

cancer and caregiving

Written by: Mary Brintnall-Peterson, Ph.D., MBP Consulting, LLC, Professor Emeritus, UW-Extension

As a mother of a cancer victim, I remember vividly when I first heard my son had cancer. I prayed and hoped that the doctors were wrong and that it wouldn’t be cancer. I was overcome with emotions—fear, uncertainty, anger, hope, guilt, helplessness, grief and others. If I was overwhelmed with emotions, what was my son experiencing? I knew I wasn’t feeling the same as my son, as the cancer was in his body, destroying his life as he knew it and charting a life as a cancer victim and hopefully survivor. I also knew that he and I dealt with emotions differently and used different coping mechanics. This is probably not different than other families.

Regardless of how you or your cancer victim deal with emotions what’s critical is to realize feelings are neither right or wrong—they are just there. We don’t get to choose our feelings or when they will hit us.  As individuals we have the option of how to deal with our emotions. We can try to hide or deny them or accept and express them. What gets people into trouble is not the emotion, but how they deal with them. Some individuals adopt unhealthy ways of coping with emotions such as eating too much or eating too little or using alcohol or drugs. In many cases, people don’t want to acknowledge they have feelings and if they do have them, they hide them, hold them inside and ignore their existence. They think by not acknowledging them they will go away. If they show emotions it’s a sign of weakness or loss of control. They don’t want people to feel sorry for them and they don’t want to upset family members (children) or others by being emotional. In some cases, individuals might feel they don’t have time to deal with emotions with everything else going on in their life. Regardless of why an individual is ignoring their feelings they won’t go away and will eventually find a way to be expressed.

Hiding emotions is hard work and wears an individual out, plus it is physically harmful. If not dealt with, emotions come out in ways that cause regret by saying or doing something, they wish they hadn’t said or done. Helping someone acknowledge their feelings isn’t easy but in the long run will be beneficial for everyone in that’s person’s life. This goes for everyone involved as it could be that the cancer victim is showing emotions and others in their life aren’t. These individuals could be hiding their emotions as they don’t want to upset the cancer victim, plus they might think their emotions don’t matter as they don’t have cancer. Not true! Everyone involved with the cancer victim will experience some type of emotions which need to be acknowledged, accepted and expressed.

There is no magic way to acknowledge, accept and express feelings.  Remember it’s not the emotion or feeling that gets us in trouble, but how we express those feelings that sometimes gets us in trouble.

5 Ways to Express Feelings or Emotions

  1. Talking with someone. A someone can be any person(s) you feel comfortable with—a friend, another family member, a professional or sometimes a complete stranger is a good listener. For some individuals they talk to a spiritual or faith leader and God. Support groups offer a safe place to express feelings and the individual can be validated by others who have or had similar experiences.
  2. Crying. Tears are a way of cleansing the body and soul. It helps to release your emotions and tensions.
  3. Writing. Journaling or jotting down one’s feelings can be helpful to some individuals. Writing also can clarify how they are feeling.It can also provide documentation of how the individual felt in others situations. Writing for some, makes it easier to express their feelings because they have a better idea of what they are feeling. For some, writing helps to let go of the feelings or cope with them better. They may find they aren’t continually thinking about how they are feeling as its now on paper.
  4. Creative Activities. For some individuals using their emotions help them create artwork, drawings, crafts or other creative forms of expression. In some cases, the creative activity becomes a symbol of how they feel.
  5. Physical Activities. For many physical activities are a way to release emotions. The type of physical activity doesn’t matter but it is dependent on what the individual can or can’t do. Any type of activity even walking, or moving in a chair or stretching can help in releasing difficult emotions.

Emotions and cancer go hand in hand. Learning to acknowledge, accept and express them is in everyone’s best interest throughout the cancer journey which is full of ups and downs.

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