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Emotional Impact of Cancer

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can seem overwhelming

Many thoughts rush through your mind. It is probably something you thought or wished you would never hear. You most likely felt a whole range of emotions: anger, hurt, pain, fear, and maybe even guilt. This chapter will discuss some issues that a diagnosis of cancer raises and suggest activities and ideas that might help you cope with your diagnosis of head and neck cancer.

People often cope with a diagnosis of cancer by:

    1. Active thought

    2. Active behavior

    3. Avoidance

Active Thoughts

Active thoughts work by using mental techniques to help yourself feel better. These techniques include identifying your thoughts and feelings and re-framing them. These chapters give many more examples of using active thoughts.

Active Behavior

Active behavior is when you try to positively change your situation. For example, you may decide to begin exercising more to improve your health and elevate your mood or try the relaxation exercises described here. Active behavior is a good way to cope with overwhelming emotions and difficult situations.


Avoidance is a common method of dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes life seems overwhelming. You do not want to think about it. It is easier to avoid it. For example, you avoid thinking of what to discuss with your doctors, what to discuss with your family, and what to do in the future. Although this works in the short term, in the long run this strategy may stand in the way of physical and emotional progress.

One method of avoidance is to relieve tension by smoking or to forget your problems by drinking alcohol. These behaviors offer temporary relief. However, the long-term health effects are harmful and can contribute to a cancer reoccurrence.

It is not uncommon for people to avoid dealing with their physical symptoms even before a diagnosis of cancer. Perhaps they noticed something was wrong, but did not have it checked out for some time. Even after seeing the doctor, many people still feel anxious and alone. Avoidance of these feelings may cause people to explode at people they love, rather than expressing their feelings.

Common Avoidance Behaviors

The following are common avoidance behaviors:

  • Keeping others from knowing your feelings
  • Avoiding people
  • Refusing to think about the situation
  • Trying to reduce tension by sleeping, eating, drinking, smoking, or taking more drugs than usual
  • Letting the doctors make all treatment decisions
  • Believing that nothing can be done but wait
  • Daydreaming about better times
  • Taking concerns out on other people (making biting comments or shouting at others)
  • Blaming oneself
  • Feeling guilty

Do you recognize any avoidance behaviors that you use? If so, please realize that this is a very normal human reaction. In fact, you would be a super human not to feel at least some of these.

If you find that you are keeping your thoughts and feelings to yourself and have not spoken with anyone, this is avoidance. It may be helpful for you to call a friend or a family member and speak with them. This is taking control and using active behavior to address the issue.

Sometimes even when we talk to people, the communication does not go the way we expected. For example, no matter how much you try, a family member or friend may avoid sensitive subjects. When this happens, it is important for you to recognize that it is not your fault. Perhaps they are having difficulty communicating their feelings about your cancer diagnosis. Communication techniques will be further discussed in Communication Skills.

Other Avoidance Behaviors

It is not uncommon for people to blame themselves for getting cancer. For example, people may think "it was my diet, bad genes, bad habits!" However, these thoughts can lead to the avoidance of taking action. To improve your health and prevent a cancer reoccurrence, it is important to remain in the "here and now" and focus on immediate action.

Another common avoidance behavior is failing to plan for the future. Some common thoughts include, "What if my cancer comes back?". or "What if it spreads?" However, these thoughts keep you from focusing on taking action. These issues are commonly discussed in local cancer survivor support groups. It can help to talk with other people who have similar experiences.

Finally, a last common avoidance behavior is not discussing issues with your doctor. Poor communication with your doctor/nurse can effect the quality of your care. Sometimes people do better when they make a list of important questions at home to discuss with their doctor/nurse in the office.

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