Cancer: The Emotional Roller Coaster

The Emotional Stages of Cancer

The emotional stages that you will typically undergo after a cancer diagnosis are well-documented, but are not any less jarring or painful once you experience them. Rest assured that this is a perfectly normal experience. Knowing what to expect may alleviate some of the anxiety that comes with the news of a healing crisis. While everyone will cope in their own way, there are several stages or emotions that commonly arise:

•    Shock and disbelief
•    Confusion
•    Fear and anxiety
•    Denial and anger
•    Frustration and a sense of hopelessness
•    Feelings of a loss of control
•    Loneliness and depression
•    Grief and mourning
•    Acceptance

Be aware that you may experience some or all of these stages at different times throughout the treatment and recovery process. Your reaction may be strong or mild. Remember that there's no "right" way to feel and that it's important to let your emotions happen. Experiencing and expressing these emotions (in a support group, with a confidant, or by keeping a journal) are critical to healing your cancer.

While fear, depression, and other stressful emotional stages often follow the diagnosis of cancer, the continued presence of anger, grief, guilt, or perceived lack of self-worth (which may be present only at the subconscious level) stimulates the production of potentially destructive neurotransmitters or hormones (such as cortisone), which, in turn, can cause the cancer to spread. "People who carry around a lot of unexpressed fear and anger are the ones who generally don't do as well after a cancer diagnosis," says Lawrence Taylor, M.D., of Chula Vista, California. "The research I've seen on the psychosomatic basis for cancer survival suggests that these types of people may be six times more vulnerable to cancer and cancer mortality."

To succeed in reversing cancer, you must get rid of the negative thinking. Continued negative emotions stimulate the adrenal gland to produce the hormones cortisone and adrenaline. This so-called fight-or-flight reaction is desirable when you face a physical threat, but is to no purpose in this situation, in which case these hormones suppress the body's immune system and anticancer defenses. To win the battle against cancer, Dr. Taylor asserts that a total change in attitude is needed. The ideal anticancer attitude, he says, has two primary components: (1) it is hopeful, optimistic, and life-affirming; and (2) it is assertive regarding one's own needs.

"People need to realize that they can alter the course of their cancer by the way they think about themselves and the world around them," says Dr. Taylor. "When you have feelings of joy and happiness, you produce more endorphins, which make you feel good." Endorphins, the body's own natural painkillers, also contribute to the synthesis of the hormone DHEA by the adrenal glands, which stimulates the thymus gland to carry out its immune functions more effectively. In other words, the immune system is bolstered by faith, hope, and happiness.

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