The uncertainty that your lung cancer journey brings can cause a wide range of emotional reactions. Those emotions, in turn, may affect the way you deal with friends and family, work, or care decisions. These are the reasons our emotions are well worth paying attention to.
Below are thoughts and emotions many lung cancer patients experience, as well as some ways to help you deal with those emotions.
Receiving a lung cancer diagnosis—or learning that the cancer has returned—may be one of the most stressful things a person can experience. Be aware that the shock of bad news can cause people to stop listening: one reason it's important to have a second set of ears at medical appointments whenever possible. Shock can also make people stop talking, just when they most need to reach out to others. To help patients deal with trauma of difficult or unexpected news, some lung cancer specialists may recommend using relaxation techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing, and self-hypnosis. And talking about your fears with those you trust is also a good idea.
Guilt doesn't add anything helpful to the cancer experience; instead, it weighs you down emotionally. Thoughts like, "Did I cause my cancer?" won't help you heal from cancer, so try not to dwell on questions that can't be answered and won't help your health. Even though fewer people smoke today than when the link to cancer was first identified, those with lung cancer may carry this guilt. If you did smoke, you may feel responsible, shameful, or embarrassed. And if you are a lung cancer patient who didn't smoke, you might even feel unfairly judged and ask yourself, "Why did this happen to me?" You may never know why you or someone you love has lung cancer. So try to put the past in the past and accept the changes and challenges ahead.
It's normal to feel anxiety when dealing with a serious issue like lung cancer. People often feel anxious in response to situations where the outcome is unknown and they have limited control. Try not to be too self-critical—your feelings are your feelings, and therefore valid—but do seek help if your anxiety feels like it's becoming unmanageable.
At one time or another, feelings of emotional distress are part of the territory for many people with cancer and their families. Distress can take many forms, from feelings of vulnerability and sadness to clinical depression and panic, according to the experts at the Cancer Support Community. And distress can arise at any time—from pre- through post-treatment. Talking with others who know what you're going through, sometimes referred to as "peer support," may help ease distress.
If you think about it, we're always being judged. In our work, our communication style, and even our driving abilities. But feeling judged for having lung cancer is directly associated with an old, but powerful stigma: the belief that lung cancer is only caused by smoking. When people learn more about lung cancer, they find out it can be caused by a number of factors.
If you feel this stigma or judgment is keeping you from asking for—or getting—good care, you should speak with someone who supports and advocates for people living with lung cancer.
No one would blame you if you felt sad or depressed when thinking about how your diagnosis has changed your life. Oncology professionals who deal with lung cancer patients and their sad feelings recommend that you and your loved ones talk this out. You should start with your oncology team, who may be able to connect you with appropriate counseling. Ask your oncology team whether any medications might help with your depression. You might also want to reach out to a counselor who specializes in the emotions of cancer. You may be able to find this person by connecting with the Cancer Support Community Helpline.
Going for a scan may put you in a place where you feel unsure of what may happen. This is a legitimate fear and the name "scanxiety" is relevant to every cancer, not just lung cancer. Scanxiety can produce symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—causing irritability and sleeplessness. It can even interfere with your personal, social, and work life—and lead you to delay or avoid anything potentially traumatic (like doctor visits and regular scans). Talk to your oncology nurses about scanxiety. They may be able to suggest ways to reduce your anxiety, including evaluating whether medications would be helpful.
Emotions have the potential to cloud our judgments. That's why it's a good idea to remember that while you could be the person with lung cancer, anyone who loves and cares about you is also "coping with lung cancer." They may not mean to make you question yourself or feel confused, but it happens. Therefore, just be aware that a range of emotions may be swirling at any given moment. And that's okay. The key is to not let those emotions interfere with understanding or requesting the support and care you need.
One way to deal with this is to have a plan. For instance, you might tell yourself, "When discussing treatments, I am going to focus on the discussion and not how I feel about it."
Or, "I will ask questions when I think of them and write down the answers. This way, I won't spend time imagining what the answer ‘could' be." You might even appoint someone to be "the listener" or "the note-taker" to help others check their emotions as well.
Your support team is one of your most important lung cancer resources. But if you feel like everyone around you is too busy to help you cope with this, or your support team lives too far from you, you must remember: You are NOT alone. The world is filled with lung cancer communities—online and in person. These communities are filled with compassionate and experienced cancer professionals, caregivers, and survivors. You can find them doing extraordinary work on national, regional, and local levels.
People want to help. Let them. Tell the ones you love what you need and want. They are waiting.
NEXT: Using Your Support Team