(This is the first of three articles of a series.)
As you know, most people have emotional ups and downs throughout the cancer experience. As you probably also know, this is normal. While depression and anxiety can be direct or indirect side effects of some medications that are prescribed to cancer patients, most of the feelings you experience are caused simply by the crisis of a cancer diagnosis. Cancer is scary, angering, and saddening. Having these feelings when you have cancer is natural and part of being human.
However, sometimes the intensity of these emotions scares us, along with the fact that they can seem to change very quickly. It can feel like our feelings are “all over the place”…we can swing from sadness to anger to frustration to fear all within one day, or even within a few hours! Because of the intensity and the “swinging” nature of these feelings, it can sometimes feel like we’re “going crazy.” But we’re not…this “emotional rollercoaster” can be said to be a “normal response to an abnormal situation.”
One thing to remember is that feelings will come and go. Henry Ward Beecher said, “No emotion, no more than a wave, can long retain its own individual form.” Know that when you are on the couch and you feel that you can not get up, that you will not always feel that way. Try your best to remind yourself that the feeling will pass. Often when we fight the feeling, trying to “think positively” when we are feeling miserable, the feeling stays for longer than it needs to. It’s not the feeling in and of itself that is bad, but the label or judgment we put on it. We tell ourselves, “I should be more positive,” “I shouldn’t be feeling this way; it could be worse.” Or we judge ourselves as wrong or bad for feeling down. The judgment makes the experience more painful than it needs to be. If we just let ourselves feel down–sad, exhausted, “beaten up,” or whatever–and know that we can handle it and come up on the other side, it can be easier.
My own counselor said the most helpful words to me when I was having emotional ups and downs during my cancer journey. She said, “Ride the waves.” I practiced this and it helped so much. When I was feeling really down (and on the couch and couldn’t get up) I would say to myself, “Yup…this is the bottom of the wave. I am really down.” In acknowledging that, it helped me to realize that I wouldn’t be there forever. It helped me to stop judging myself and thinking, “There’s something wrong with me.” No…there was nothing wrong with me and I wasn’t “crazy,” I was just feeling really down.
This helped me to not take it so seriously. It helped me to say, “So I am down…so what? I have been down before and I have handled it.” Then, lo and behold, the feeling would pass eventually and I could get off the couch again. I would often think to myself, “Hmmm…I feel fine, I wonder what that was all about.” After this happened a bunch of times, I realized that yes, indeed, the feelings do pass…even the worst ones. After I was at the bottom of the wave, I would eventually come to the top.
Sometimes just naming the feeling gave me a sense of relief. I would just try to pay attention to what I was feeling, to notice where I was at, without judgment. Thinking of the analogy of riding the waves, as though I was on a float, helped me to remember that the bottom was just one part of the wave, not the whole thing.
**Note: If you find that you are feeling sad all the time and it doesn’t lift, you’ve lost the feeling of enjoyment when doing things you used to enjoy, you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, are having feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, or your persistent sadness interferes with usual activities and ability to carry out your normal roles, you may be experiencing clinical depression. Please contact a professional immediately.
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Photo credit: groovyholly