Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
After someone has been diagnosed with cancer, current or anticipated losses such as control over daily living, health, and even life itself can contribute to grieving. Grief expert David Kessler describes five commonly recognized stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- as the framework for learning to live with loss. Keep in mind, though, that not everyone who's grieving experiences all these stages or goes through them in a particular order.
Denial helps you survive news that’s too hard to handle. Overwhelmed by feelings of shock or numbness, you grasp only as much as you can accept at the moment. According to the Mayo Clinic, a short period of denial can be a healthy coping mechanism, but denial can also prevent you from effectively dealing with issues that require action, such as a health crisis or financial problems. As denial fades, you can begin to confront the feelings that were too painful to deal with initially.
Anger signals acceptance but distress with the cancer diagnosis. You’re entitled to feel angry in response to your pain and to express your concern, but don't let anger get the best of you. Talking with family, friends, medical staff and other people with cancer is a healthy way to manage your feelings. So are exercising and expressing your painful thoughts in a journal.
Guilt can creep in during the bargaining stage of grief. According to Kessler, you can become lost in a maze of “If only…” statements, blaming yourself for failing to do something to stave off the cancer. Or, you might try bargaining to prevent future losses, such as changing your lifestyle or promising God to change certain behaviors in exchange for recovery.
Sadness and Depression
Confronting cancer and the losses it entails understandably leads to great sadness. You may have trouble sleeping and concentrating, you may lack your usual energy, or you may find yourself crying unexpectedly. These are normal reactions, but will you ever climb out of your darkness? Speaking with a professional counselor or participating in a support group can help. When someone has multiple signs of depression every day for two weeks or longer, or symptoms are significant enough to interfere with everyday activities, The American Cancer Society recommends evaluation and possibly treatment by a qualified professional.
Acceptance isn’t about letting go of your grief. It means you’ve accepted that cancer is a part of your life—a new normal. You’ve stopped trying to regain what you’ve lost and are moving on to new experiences. Although you may still feel the pain associated with the cancer diagnosis, you’re accepting its reality and getting on with your life, for better or worse.