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Dealing With the Emotional Toll of Cancer


Cancer fucks with your emotions. That’s no secret. If I’ve ever learned anything from Hollywood, it’s that cancer equals tearjerker. I must have watched “Beaches” dozens of times with my junior high school girlfriends, and we cried every time. When I was diagnosed, I just assumed I would one day sit in a chaise lounge at the beach with a wide-brimmed hat on, Bette Midler singing in the background while my close friends and family wore knowing expressions as they tried to smile for my sake.

My other favorite tearjerker was “Steel Magnolias,” which wasn’t about cancer, but you could pretend it was and the story basically still works. One of my favorite moments is when Sally Field gets angry and just wants to hit someone, “Here, hit Weezer” as Olympia Dukakis shoves their “frenemy” forward. It’s a great scene with a range of emotions: grief, anger, comic relief. If only dealing with our own emotions was that easy (and entertaining) in real life.

Tearjerker movies aside, I was never a big crier growing up. I would have what could be described as an emotional purge day (or couple hours). I’d watch or read something emotional and use that as a catalyst to release stored up emotions. Then I’d go back to not crying. Now I cry all the fucking time. Everything makes me cry. I sobbed through a box of Kleenex reading a chapter in a novel. I had to put the book down, and I cried until I could cry no more (off and on for about an hour). And I was wrecked for the rest of the day. I mean, who am I? I could watch a beautifully executed dance on “Dancing with the Stars” and cry. “Dancing with the Stars,” guys. And sometimes I would be in the shower and just cry out of frustration because of all the ways disease has brutalized my body.

Somedays the tears are all dried up and all that’s left is a burning rage. Like Sally Field but in real life and with no one to hit. Seriously, who can we punch? Where are all the harassing douchebags when you need them? Racists, misogynists, Jeremy Jamm (from “Parks & Rec”)? And where’s our comic relief to break the tension of our anger? I guess since we live in the real world and don’t have writers scripting everything to work out OK, we need other ways to deal with the onslaught of emotions that crash down on us without warning. So I guess there are some things that can help. Different things will work for different people or in different situations, but having some tools to try is worth something.

1. Therapy and/or Mood Stabilizers 

When I was diagnosed, I cried all of the time. I cried at the grocery store. At the doctor’s office, at McDonald’s. It didn’t matter. I could not stop crying. So, I saw a therapist and went on a mood stabilizer. This really helped me to stop feeling like an emotional wreck and the weirdo who’s crying over her caramel sundae with nuts. There are side effects (I lost my libido), so it’s up to an individual to decide what works for them.

There’s also medicinal cannabis (where legal). Many dispensaries have helpful, well-informed staff that can assist you in purchasing the right products to tackle what you are going through. This can be a good alternative to a pharmaceutical mood stabilizer (or pain reliever), but I suggest always err on the side of caution and discuss these decisions with your oncologist.

2. Exercise

woman with stereo and 80s workout clothes

Physical exercise can be a healthy way to work out the stored up energy of emotional overload. And it’s good for a cancer-wrecked body too, so you kind of get a two-in-one deal. I work out with heavy weights, but I’ve heard some people like to jog or run. (I don’t get it, but they do for some reason.)  Sometimes exercise can be difficult because of the ways cancer and treatments have affected your body, but even punching the air or walking a block and back can be helpful — just something to work out the emotional energy in a physical way.

parks and rec gif that says jogging is the worst

3.  Mindfulness or Meditation

Focusing your mind on something other than your anxiety, emotions or their root cause can be a helpful reprieve. There are many ways to practice mindfulness. You may find mindfulness clinics you can attend or apps that can lead you through exercises. You can blast music, hold/feel a soft pillow or interesting fabric. You can even place a piece of chocolate on your tongue and think about the flavor, taste, texture, any details. There is no one right way. The goal is to focus and fill your mind with that one thing letting everything else fall away in that moment.

parks and rec gif about meditating

Meditation is similar, but kind of the opposite of mindfulness. Rather than filling your mind to push out the cause of anger, anxiety, sadness and so forth, you allow those things to fall out of your mind. You can focus on your breath and breathing, you can picture a calm place in your mind. Like mindfulness, there are many ways to practice meditation. There are some great meditation apps or clinics. Many yoga studios also offer meditation. It’s important to find what works for you.

4.   Artistic outlet 

This is something that works well for me. I tend to write out my emotions. It helps me to get what I’m feeling out of my head and onto paper (or my computer). It doesn’t have to be well-written or even make a lot of sense. It’s similar to the practice of writing an angry letter and then not sending it. Sometimes just writing about what I’m going through calms me or at least lets me put a period on it and take a break from thinking about it for a while.

Outside of writing, I’m not artistic at all. I’ve tried, but I’m a drawer of stick figures who can’t dance. But I’ve met a lot of survivors who have found artistic expression to be soothing, healing, or a physical outlet for the internal emotions they’re dealing with. I’ve met dancers and filmmakers, and musicians. I actually took up the mandolin. I mean, I was terrible, but focusing on trying to learn something new gave me a break from thinking about stage IV cancer for those hours of lessons and minutes of practicing.

This, by far, is not an extensive list of tools to help deal with overwhelming emotions as they crash down on us while we try to survive cancer. And one thing might work one day and not the next, and some things will work for some and not for others. But if you wake up with a lot of rage one morning, try doing some crunches to loud music while smoking (legal) weed and painting. And if you’re lucky, you’ll run into someone who deserves to be punched.*

*Just to be clear, I don’t actually advocate violence… unless they really deserve it. (Just kidding.)

Image Credits: Lanie Brewster Quinn