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If You Have Cancer, Express Your Emotions

CancerWise - January 2008

By Dawn Dorsey

Cancer patients and caregivers dealing with strong emotions may find relief by naming their emotions and then discussing them with someone they trust, experts say.

A friend might want to start a dialogue with the person struggling, especially if it’s a person unaccustomed to talking about feelings, says Mary Hughes, a psychiatric advanced practice nurse in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Psychiatry.

"You can help others by naming what you see," Hughes says. "Maybe you can gently say, ‘You look sad,' or 'You have seemed angry lately.’ You can then ask, 'Are you sad?' or 'Are you angry?' Then you can move on to offer help: 'How can I help you?' or 'What do you need from me?'"

Emotional rollercoaster is diverse

Anger and fear are common emotions for those facing cancer. Fear is one of those feelings a lot of people don't talk about.

People also may feel anger toward their doctors, and patients and family members may resent each other. This brings on guilt, Hughes says.

Other emotions may include:

  • Grief
  • Difficulty coping with change in family roles
  • Denial
  • Feeling of loss of control
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness

Tips can help get the feelings out

Usually a person deals with a cancer diagnosis the same way he or she has dealt with past crises, Hughes says. If a person usually denies or suppresses feelings, he or she may not recognize emotions and may have a particularly hard time giving them names.

Hughes advises both patient and caregiver to:

  • Be aware of how hurtful words can be
  • Know the other person is angry at the situation
  • Respond, rather than react
  • Think before speaking

Seek help if it gets serious

If emotions interfere with a person’s life, it's time to consult a professional.

"Many times the caregiver may be the one to recognize a patient needs help," Hughes says. "The caregiver can say, 'I think you may benefit from talking to an objective person.'"

If someone is hesitant to seek professional help because he or she sees it as a sign of weakness, a partner or friend can remind that person that it takes a strong person to ask for help.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center