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Coping With Cancer

How Do I Handle This Cancer Part 3

*August 2020* by Tess Taft, msw, licsw ©all rights reserved

This is the third part of a five part series on how people cope with cancer. The first installment discussed GRIEF, DEPRESSION, and ANXIETY. The second installment included thoughts on ANGER.This third section speaks to people who manage their feelings by WITHDRAWAL and RESIGNATION.

Remember: The ways we handle cancer define how we are trying to survive emotionally. People within the same family (or family of friends) often handle cancer in very different ways. Also, people learn to handle cancer in new and more ways over time, as they learn how to live in spite of the stress and grief in themselves or their loved ones. The ways people handle the predictable crisis points in cancer also shift and change as people learn to trust themselves and receive support during this new and demanding time of trouble. The predictable crisis points include: diagnosis, beginning treatment, midway through treatment, ending treatment, recurrence, terminal diagnosis, and dying. Families that support each other well have learned to accept the different styles within their group of loved ones, holding them all in balance, even validating their different coping styles in front of each other. When it comes to cancer, past losses of loved ones who died of cancer can determine how devastating a cancer diagnosis can feel, even if the current prognosis is excellent. It is easy to forget the vast advances that have occurred in cancer treatment over the last few years and decades.


“You want me to tell you how I feel. Really? You won’t be able to handle that if I tell you. I will go crazy. Really.” “I don’t want to talk with you about my feelings. If I do that, I’ll leave your office and they will be bigger than when I came in. Can’t you just teach me how to relax?”

“My children and I are living in a bubble of silence about my cancer. None of us want to talk about it. There is a weird silence in the house, all of us busy on our devices, avoiding each other. It’s horrible. It breaks my heart.”

“I can’t talk to my husband about how I’m feeling. He’ll think I’ve given up before we even started. Or he’ll judge me for being emotional. No, I’m not talking about just taking time to think before I speak to him about it. I’ll just talk with you and my friend Sarah. Plus, I don’t want to scare him. That’s unkind.”

“My husband won’t tell me how he is feeling. He refuses. I am going crazy. Doesn’t he trust me? Does he think I’ll up and leave him if he’s scared or angry or whatever? How can I get him to talk with me?”

These are people who are not used to expressing scary feelings and so don’t know they can be resolved. They have often spent years avoiding their frightening feelings, developing skills that have worked well—until a life threatening cancer diagnosis throws lives into chaos. And cancer is a lot to swallow. Many of us need to take difficult journeys one step at a time. Whenever I brought up scary feelings she might be having, Laurie shifted her eyes to the tv, which she politely refused to turn off when we began to talk in her hospital room. She was my teacher. From her I learned to begin slowly and more softly, stating (not asking) “Some people in your situation think…Is this true for you, do you think?” (I was careful not to mention feelings.) She nodded yes. I reached to hold her hand and sat watching the tv with her as she quietly wept. Over time she allowed herself to trust me, as I learned to begin gently and allow for her withdrawal. Read more.