Understanding your emotions when you hear about their diagnosis

The person with cancer may respond to stress in a completely different way to you and this can be hard to understand. One person may express their emotions more openly than the other (such as crying or talking about their feelings). A stressful event like cancer may make this more obvious. There is no right or wrong reaction to a cancer diagnosis.

“It’s important to be on the same page and to check in with each other regularly. We also now respect that we are a bit different in the way we cope with things.” - Phil

You may feel some or all of the following emotions. They won’t happen in any particular order:

  • loneliness and isolation
  • fear and anxiety
  • sadness and depression
  • guilt
  • frustration
  • anger
  • resentment
  • helplessness
  • loss and grief.

Feeling alone and lonely

Being a partner or supporter can be extremely lonely at times. Even if others offer help, you may still feel as though nobody else truly understands what you are going through.

Tips

Talk to someone who’s been through this situation.

  • Contact the Cancer Connect service through the Cancer Society.
  • Join a support group.
  • Access or find online support.
  • Talk with a friend.
  • Accept offers of help.
  • Go to a local place of worship or talk to your religious or spiritual supporter.

Feeling frightened and anxious

Watching someone go through cancer and its treatment can be frightening. You may be fearful that the person with cancer won’t get better or that you won’t cope with the situation. The person with cancer may have their own fears, which may make it difficult to talk to them and share experiences.

Tips

  • Many partners and supporters say that learning more about cancer helps them feel more in control, while others feel overwhelmed by the information available. You need to do what feels best for you.
  • If you don’t understand any of the information you have been given, talk to your cancer doctor or nurse.
  • Talk to a counsellor. They can help you to talk through your feelings and think about practical ways to manage your fear and anxiety. For information on how to contact a counsellor, contact your local Cancer Society or phone the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).

Feeling sad and depressed

It’s common to feel down or sad at times when you are caring for someone with cancer. You may feel sad about what the person has to cope with or what they have had to give up. If you are partners then you may feel sad about not being able to enjoy things together as you used to.

For some people the sadness may not go away. You may begin to feel down nearly all of the time and not able to pull yourself out of it. If this is the case, you may have depression. Other symptoms of depression can include changes in your appetite or weight, sleeping problems and feelings of hopelessness.

Depression is very different from sadness. Depression is an illness that may need treatment. There is very effective treatment for depression, and the earlier you seek advice, the better. If you think you might be depressed talk to your GP. For more information and support, go to Depression NZ (http://www.depression.org.nz/).

Tips

  • Try to do something you enjoy every day.
  • Get up as soon as you wake up rather than lying in bed.
  • Meet with a friend, text or email.
  • Try to do some exercise. Even a 30 minute walk every day will make you feel better.
  • Make an appointment with your GP and discuss how you feel.

Feeling guilty

Many supporters say they feel guilty.

You may feel guilty about:

  • not being available as much as you’d like because of your other commitments
  • not being able to do enough for the person with cancer
  • knowing you are well and the person you are caring for is ill.

“I found it very difficult to cope with the fact that my health was so good. I used to feel so guilty every time Ben had chemotherapy and felt so sick afterwards.” - Belinda

Tip

  • Avoid thinking things such as ‘I should’ or ‘I must’. Be kind to yourself and accept you can’t do everything.

Feeling frustrated

Your frustration may be related to many things: lack of time to do your own thing, or not being able to change the situation for the person with cancer. You may feel frustrated about waiting for appointments or test results.

Talk to your cancer nurse or doctor about this. Although it’s a very normal feeling, frustration can make you feel anxious, upset or even angry at times. Coping with Waiting is an information sheet that has advice on coping with stress caused by waiting for test results and appointments. You can read this on the Society’s website. You can also get a copy by phoning your local Cancer Society or a nurse on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).

Tips

  • Take regular breaks.
  • Do something physical such as going for a walk. Even a short walk will make you feel better.

Feeling angry

There may be times when you feel angry about what you have to do or how the person with cancer treats you. You may feel that they don’t appreciate everything you are doing, or that they are only thinking about themselves.

Tips

  • In the heat of the moment, take a deep breath and walk away from the situation for a few minutes. Try to work out what is causing your anger.
  • Try to rest when you can, eat well and do some exercise each day. Tiredness or hunger can make you angry more easily.
  • Don’t hold your anger in or pressure yourself to be positive and calm all the time. This can sometimes lead to an explosion of strong emotion.
  • Remember you are human and feeling angry is part of that. But, you can choose how you react to this feeling. Ask yourself whether you need to let it go, or take action to tackle a problem.
  • There are lots of positive ways to help you deal with anger such as listening to music (with earphones if necessary), going for a walk or run, writing your feelings down or talking to a friend or relative.
  • Avoid using alcohol and other drugs to relieve anger. They may help in the short term to relax you but, overall, they will make you feel worse and may make you do or say things you regret.
  • If anger has become a problem, talk to your GP or another health professional.

Feeling resentful

It is very normal for partners or supporters to, sometimes, feel resentful. This may be towards the person you are supporting. You may feel other family/whānau members, friends or medical staff could be doing more to help.

Loving someone doesn’t always protect you from resentment. If your relationship with the person you are caring for was ‘rocky’ or had ended before they became ill, you may resent supporting them.

Tips

  • Don’t let resentment build up. It will make you feel worse, and affect your ability to support the person you care about. You may wish to talk to a counsellor if things become too hard and you are finding that you feel resentful all the time. Counsellors are experienced and will help you with ways to deal with this common feeling.
  • You may consider other options for care for the person with cancer (for example, a rest home). It is okay to think like this. Sometimes, you have to make a decision that is right for you.

Feeling helpless

There may be times when you feel that there is nothing you can do to help. You can’t take away the cancer or the pain. Many people say this makes them feel helpless or out of control. This can be especially hard for people who have always felt in control of life. Some people say they feel helpless as they have no medical background and feel overwhelmed when the person with cancer says things aren’t going well.

Tips

  • Have a list of all the numbers (in your contact list on your phone) of who to call when there’s a problem, such as a GP, community cancer nurse, the hospital or hospice, or your social worker.
  • Talk to a health professional working with the person with cancer, (for example, when their pain is worse, or they are feeling sick or very down).
  • Feel reassured that the person you’re supporting is glad you’re there.

Feelings of loss and grief

Many changes and losses occur with cancer. You may feel that you have lost part of your relationship with the person you are caring for. You may be missing work, people, regular exercise or an active social life. Certain family/whānau and friends may be staying away because they are not sure how to deal with illness. You may be dealing with an uncertain future and financial changes.

Tips

  • It can take time to adjust to the changes and challenges you are now facing, so be kind to yourself.
  • Take time out to stay in touch with people.
  • Talk to a counsellor.

Feeling stressed

Looking after someone with cancer will be different for everyone. It is likely to bring a lot of stress into your life as you both try to deal with the demands of the treatment and its side effects or other changes. Feeling tired, upset, angry or anxious can add to your stress.

Some symptoms of stress can include:

  • feeling very tired but having difficulty sleeping
  • becoming easily upset
  • feeling anxious all the time or having panic attacks
  • regular headaches
  • aches and pains
  • high blood pressure
  • an increased heart rate.

A lot of stress can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, avoidance and withdrawal. Refusing to talk or withdrawing is often a response to strong emotions, such as fear and anxiety. This can be difficult to handle. If the person with cancer refuses or avoids talking about what’s happening, this can cause a lot of frustration for the supporter. If this is a problem, talk to a counsellor, close friend or a member of your family/whānau. 

Try to accept that they have their own way of coping, and some people prefer not to talk about their cancer or don’t yet feel ready to do so. If someone coped with life’s challenges in this way before the cancer came along, it’s likely they’ll cope in the same way. It can help the person with cancer to express how they are feeling through other means (writing, art or music) if they’re not ‘a talker’ or confident talking.

Tips

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat healthy food.
  • Do something you find relaxing such as reading or listening to music or gardening.
  • Ask others for help.
  • Try to get enough rest and sleep.
  • Don’t use alcohol for comfort.
  • Try to do some of your normal activities. Planning regular enjoyable activities can help you to feel like you still have some control at a time when so much is out of your control, and it gives you something to look forward to.
  • Have a friend or family member who can be the main contact for information.
  • Use voicemail, email or Facebook to let people know what’s happening.
  • Keep in touch with friends.
  • Find out what services you are entitled to (for example, home help, meals or volunteer driving).
  • Keeping a diary helps with expressing how you’re feeling.

Being over-protective

Sometimes, partners or family members do more for the person with cancer than that person wants. They may stop the person with cancer from expressing any negative thoughts for fear of burdening them. While it may be done with good intentions, it can often make the person with cancer feel powerless and unable to talk about how they feel. Often, people with cancer will not express bad thoughts to protect their supporters if they think they are stressed or fragile. This is another reason why taking really good care of yourself will help the person you’re supporting.

Tips

  • Check with the person about what they want to do for themselves and how you can help.
  • Encourage them to be as independent as they can and to live as normally as possible.
  • There will be good and bad days for both of you, and that’s okay.
  • Talk to a counsellor if you’re worried about this.

Talking about cancer all the time

Either person may wish to talk about the cancer or their feelings and this can be a useful way of thinking things through. However, constantly talking about cancer may become exhausting or distressing; it can drag down the mood and make people feel like the cancer has taken over all aspects of life.

Tip

  • It may be useful for the other person to find support outside the relationship to meet their need to talk.