Women and Emotions from Cancer: What’s Wrong With Me?

A woman who has survived cancer and has a bald head looks thoughtful as she gazes on out into a natural landscape.“Anna” is a 48 year-old woman who finished chemotherapy for ovarian cancer about a month ago. She came to see me because she was feeling “kind of depressed” and had very little energy. Prior to her diagnosis, Anna was working full time as a middle school teacher. She was married and a mother of two teenagers. She described herself as hardworking and someone who “got things done.” Anna initially thought she would go back to teaching part-time after her treatment was finished, and was very disappointed when it now seemed impossible. She wondered why she wasn’t able to do the things she thought she should be able to do, i.e., why wasn’t she back to “normal?”

What is wrong with Anna? The answer: nothing, except her perception of how things should be. Whenever someone uses the word should, I wonder who the should represents. Usually, it is someone other than the person speaking, often an anonymous they. For example, who is the best person to decide when someone is ready to go back to work after treatment? The person’s boss? His/her family? The doctor? How about the person who knows his/her body the best?

I see women in my office every week who are, prior to their cancers, high achieving, driven, and successful, whether in paid employment or not. Somewhere along the way during their treatment (and probably their life), they get the message that everyone else handles things better than they do and they are the only one who isn’t at 100% within a month after treatment. Where does that come from?

An interesting exercise I have these women do involves having them switch places with a good friend of theirs. Their good friend is now in their shoes with cancer, having just finished treatment, describing the symptoms they’ve just shared with me. “What would you say to your friend?” I ask them. Not surprisingly, in every instance, the women are very understanding of their friend’s situation, and tell them to be patient and kind to themselves, that they have been through a lot, and that they know they are doing the best they can. This difference is always surprising to them, and they cannot come up with a reason why they treat themselves differently than they do their friends—yet it is universal. I don’t know what this says about our society and the notion of Superwoman, but it is the last thing that people who are trying to recover from cancer need to add to their situation.

Why are women so hard on themselves and so kind to others? How many of us go to the doctor when we first start having symptoms? We certainly get our children to the doctor as soon as they are ill. Is it more important to take care of others than ourselves? Careful–this is somewhat of a trick question, depending on how you think.

The truth is we have to take care of ourselves first; for if we don’t, we will be unable to care for those we love. There is a reason it is requested that you put your own oxygen mask on first, on an airplane—you can’t help someone else if you’re not breathing! Cancer is a huge reminder of the need to care for ourselves. However, the care doesn’t stop with the last day of treatment. Cancer is a very large detour in the road of your life. You are still you, but your body may have some different needs now, and you need to listen to it. You don’t get points for pushing yourself too hard. In fact, you’ll pay for it the next day. The “new normal” for you may end up being similar to what was normal for you before, or it may be very different. Either way, give yourself credit for getting there, and treat yourself the way you would treat a friend.

© Copyright 2011 by Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT, therapist in Bellevue, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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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  • Jaqueline


    February 18th, 2011 at 7:21 PM

    Although not with cancer,I observe this kind of a behavior with a lot of my friends.When a child or a friend has even the slightest of symptoms,they rush them to the doctor.But when the same things happen to their own selves,they carry on saying it’s nothing and that it’s too small a thing to bother them.

    When I think of it,I have to agree that I have behaved this way too.Women are hard-wired to be caring but we also need to learn to take care of ourselves.

  • Hannah


    February 19th, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    After completing chemo successfully I kind of went through the same things. I will not say that the rest of life was a let down because believe me I was so thankful to be alive. But everything with everyone felt different. I had to get back to my daily life and it was hard to remember what that was like before getting sick and having to focus exclusively on my health. And there were times that I felt so selfish because I had a hard time transitioning from victim to survivor. That is a lot to wrap your head around sometimes.

  • Janice


    February 20th, 2011 at 6:35 AM

    We are encouraged to believe that we can do anything when we are battling cancer and when we are fighting that fight it is good for us to feel this way. But when the fight is over sometimes it is difficult to go back to feeling normal. You have been fighting for so long that you may think it is necessary to go on fighting everything in life and getting to the top when the truth is it is now time to let go a little, be free, and celebrate the new lease on life that you have been given.

  • lea


    February 20th, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    it can be hard to come to terms for an independent individual that he/she needs someone to look after them and that they are not in a condition to be fully go about their daily lives.this affects women even more because they are the care takers generally.

    but this can be solved by the doctors saying some simple things regarding the recovery process to the patient.

  • KA


    February 20th, 2011 at 7:16 PM

    Some people have trouble just taking rest…Maybe this has to do with their bodies and minds being accustomed to working non-stop and with a lot of interest in their work…But whatever may be the reason,when our body needs rest we need to give in…It will only cause greater problems otherwise…

  • miley


    February 21st, 2011 at 6:27 AM

    being selfish is not good,yes!but since when did just taking basic care of yourself while not completely ignoring others become such a bad thing?!all this negative feature associated with looking after oneself is just harmful!

  • Sandy


    February 22nd, 2011 at 5:43 AM

    The best comfort that I can find is when I treat myself with the same kindness that I would treat to others. There are too many times when we beat up on ourselves but cheer others on who are exhibiting the same exact behavior. Give yourself a break and know that you deserve it.

  • Norma


    March 21st, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    I really appreciate everyone’s thoughtful responses. For those of you that wrote in that are cancer survivors, learning what your “new normal” is is quite an adjustment, isn’t it? I hear many people say they just want things to go back to the way they were before they got cancer, but of course, that can’t happen. My hope for all of you, cancer patients, cancer survivors and everyone else, is to take the time to take care of yourself first before you help someone else.

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