Living with Cancer: Grieving Your Losses Along the Way

woman with shaved head looking sad “Don’t let your struggle become your identity.” —Unknown

When people hear the words “cancer” and “loss” together, they typically assume that one is referring to a person’s death. In fact, people who have been affected by cancer, whether considered cured or incurable, have to cope with many losses on their journey. Most of the time, these losses are not even recognized, for a number of reasons: initially, there is a whirlwind of appointments and procedures and there is virtually no time; people and/or their loved ones are so focused on survival that thinking of anything else seems trivial in comparison; and people may feel guilty for dwelling on things that were important to them because they get the message from their loved ones that they should just be happy and have a good attitude all the time.

The losses begin with a cancer diagnosis. After hearing your name associated with the word “cancer,” your life is irrevocably changed. Most likely, prior to that time, you were blissfully unaware of your own mortality—typical of an American culture that likes to pretend that none of us are going to die. The change/disruption/shock that comes with a cancer diagnosis can be significant enough to result in posttraumatic stress.

Some people think that if their cancer was considered cured with surgery (and they didn’t need chemo or radiation), they can’t consider themselves REAL cancer survivors. This is simply not true. It isn’t the amount of treatment that determines whether cancer has turned your life upside down.

After getting past the initial shock of the diagnosis and transformation of life as you knew it, many other losses may occur. Men with prostate cancer may have their prostates removed or be surgically or chemically castrated, rendering them impotent. Some men find the thought of being impotent so distressing that they would rather be dead.

Women with breast cancer may have a mastectomy, and women with gynecologic cancers may have hysterectomies. The treatment for both of these may lead to early or chemically induced menopause. This decreases sex drive and vaginal lubrication. Additionally, women often feel less attractive or less feminine after these surgeries and are unsure as to how their partners may feel about their appearance. As you can see, for men and women, their previous level of sexual functioning can take a dramatic drop. What makes this worse is that often physicians don’t address this, so people are reluctant to bring it up, thinking that other people don’t have this problem or that if it were important, the physician would mention it. Often couples are uncomfortable talking about it with each other, so they continue to drift apart.

A huge loss for people dealing with cancer is a loss of control. For some cancers, there are surgical options; however, people are often so overwhelmed at the beginning that making a choice can be very difficult. Typically, chemotherapy and radiation therapy schedules do not offer options. However, some oncologists will adjust or modify people’s chemotherapy if they report that they’re having significant problems with side effects.

There are many other losses that people incur, and each person will have a different idea of what those are. They may include: hair loss during chemo (this is very significant for some women), inability to travel, loss of unencumbered free time, loss of energy, inability to go out into crowds, loss of self-confidence (I see many people who are convinced that other people in treatment handle it much better than they do), loss of independence, loss of faith, loss of friends (although often others will step up and surprise you), loss of family member support, loss of not thinking about your own mortality, and hoping you will be around long enough to have children/see your children get married/see your grandchildren graduate.

In closing, it is crucial to grieve the losses you incur on your journey. Just because they aren’t important to someone else doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist only means they will come back later, bigger and harder to deal with. Healthy options for addressing them include journaling, exercise, meditation, and talking them out with someone. It’s also important to focus on what you can control on this journey, rather than railing against what you can’t. You can’t change what you can’t change—so why waste your energy on that? Focus on changing what you can—your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT, therapist in Bellevue, Washington

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Genevieve

    Genevieve

    October 17th, 2013 at 12:54 PM

    When I received my own diagnosis the first thing that I asked was if I was going to lose my hair. I did and I cried, a lot. It seemed so silly and yet that was the first thing that I thought of, not would I die or not how treatable it was but would I lose my hair.
    Looking back on it now, and I have been cancer free for three years now yay! but this was such a big part of who I was and how I viewed myself as a female and although I was ashamed of what I saw as my vanity at the time I now realize that this was how I grieved my loss- of innocence, my health, my whole identity.
    I tell women now that they shouldn’t feel silly no matter what their thoughts are about their diagnosis, we all deal with it in different ways and that’s okay.
    the key is that we actually do deal with it and feel strong as a result of that fight, not defeated.

  • Jonathan

    Jonathan

    October 17th, 2013 at 5:01 PM

    This is an interesting article. There are so many things that you lose. My father passed away from cancer a few years ago and it seems like life just kept taking things away from us as surviving family members.

  • Amy

    Amy

    October 18th, 2013 at 12:16 PM

    Jonathan my brother passed away in March from cancer and there are days when I feel I will never be whole again. I hate looking at pictures of me from when he was alive because I miss that look in my eyes. That being said I have to continue his legacy and it’s tough but necessary.
    This article makes empathize with his experience. Sometimes I think as a support team member we only see their strength. This is very insightful! Thanks for being so honest.

  • Hannah

    Hannah

    October 19th, 2013 at 4:44 AM

    When you think of loss you automatically think of losing someone but you don’t think of mall of the smaller losses along the way that they could be dealing with and grieving.
    A women who loses her breasts or her ability to bear children, or a man who loses his ability to have children or whtever the loss may be. It doesn’t nevcessarily have to be death but it can feel like death to the one having to experience it.

  • Brock

    Brock

    October 21st, 2013 at 3:55 AM

    I have always thought that people who are battling cancer are so brave and strong, and have never thought about just how much they have to go through that we don’t see.

    Of course we see the hair loss, the frail health, but then we don’t give much thought to the other and significant emotional struggles that they may be going through, sometimes quietly and alone because they are already afraid that they are being a burden to others.

  • John Langtry

    John Langtry

    February 5th, 2014 at 1:21 PM

    I am grieving my loss too, all those things stated, freedom to travel is a major one, but I have decided that its important to celebrate gains and not just focus on loss. I have gained strength to face adversity, I have gained an insight into my reaction to a death sentence and as an atheist I have discovered I have a true conviction in what I believe. I have gained friends and love, I always felt connected daily to the present but now I have gained a deeper feeling for the now. I enjoy my body and understand it more, I have also gained a higher level of tolerance and compassion for everyone on their personal journey. Celebrate your life, celebrate the personal growth and gains you make, grieve your losses, but only briefly, there’s no time to waste! Love and Peace

  • Barnabus Lanktree

    Barnabus Lanktree

    February 6th, 2014 at 5:31 AM

    dear john Langtry,

    your last name caught my eye and i can’t help but wonder if there’s a possible relation?

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