There are an estimated three million people living with cancer in the UK, which is expected to rise to four million by 2030.1 Following the recent news of King Charles’ cancer diagnosis, our members share the emotional impact this can have, how it can affect families, and how therapy can help.
“Unfortunately, cancer is an illness that many of us will face at some time during our lifetime,” says accredited therapist Lulu Sinclair. “Even if we don’t have personal experience of it ourselves, we are likely to have family members or friends who are - or will be - affected by it.”
According to accredited therapist and member, Sara Mathews, fear is the most common first response to hearing a cancer diagnosis.
“One of the functions of fear is to alert us to danger and help keep ourselves safe. But, unfortunately for many of us, it’s a difficult response to regulate,” says Sara.
Sara says that because of this, we can find ourselves responding to a situation as if it is a “10 out of 10 level of threat” when often it is much less. Sara adds that once we are in a state of activation it becomes more difficult to think clearly, make sensible decisions, and take on new information.
Accredited therapist Kamalyn Kaur adds that a cancer diagnosis can bring up additional emotions such as shock, numbness, anxiety, sadness, anger, rage, and a sense of loss or grief.
“The anger may manifest towards oneself, others, or even towards the situation itself. A feeling of injustice or unfairness may also be experienced. A diagnosis can also impact relationships with loved ones, leading to feelings of guilt, isolation, or burden.” she explains.
But Lulu says there’s no right or wrong way to deal with a diagnosis and it can be hard to predict how someone will react.
“We’re all different,” says Lulu. “Someone might not hear what’s being said, someone might hear it but not believe it, while another person might feel a sense of despondency straight away.”
Accept your feelings
There’s no denying that a cancer diagnosis can cause panic and extreme levels of anxiety, but accredited therapist, coach and speaker Bhavna Raithatha says it’s important to stay as calm as possible - even though you may not feel like it.
“Until you have much more information there’s no reason to make yourself ill with worry,” says Bhavna. “Ask many questions of your doctors and oncologists, and don't be frightened about sounding foolish or pushy.
“The major thing to focus on is that there have been significant advances in medicine and treatment. Many cancers when caught early, as His Majesty's has, have a significantly increased chance of being treated into remission.”
How it impacts the family
Kamalyn shares that in addition to the range of emotions experienced by the individual, family members can often experience a similar range of emotions too.
“Witnessing a loved one go through cancer diagnosis and treatment can be emotionally distressing, challenging, and overwhelming,” says Kamalyn.
Therapist Natasha-Rae Adams adds that grief, confusion and anger are also common emotions felt by family members - particularly for children receiving the news of a parental cancer diagnosis:
“This can shatter those naive idealisms we often can hold about the invincibility of our own parents,” says Natasha.
Natasha-Rae adds that sometimes families can feel guilt for the anger or sadness that they hold, often suppressing these feelings because they don’t want to worsen the internal emotional landscape of the diagnosed family member.
Sara advises that you need to try to avoid feeling guilty and says:
“You didn't choose this and it's not your fault. Keep information sharing clear and simple. Tell people what you know and what you don't know. You may have to repeat yourself as we know that anxiety impacts people's ability to listen and take in information.”
She also adds that following a new cancer diagnosis, the people who care about you are also likely to feel worried.
“Keep in mind that different people respond differently to stress,” says Sara. “Some people close off, some people act aggressively. Use what you already know about your family to help you understand how they are reacting.
It’s important to be aware that the dynamics in the family may also change due to added responsibilities such as care giving.
“That the demands of treatment and caregiving may disrupt the normal routines which can lead to feelings of stress, exhaustion, frustration, anxiety, fear, or tension as family members adjust to new schedules and priorities,” says Kamalyn.
Cancer survivor and member Lisa Gates says that a cancer diagnosis can also be an opportunity for transformation and inner development and growth.
“After the initial shock, it can be possible to embrace change with a sense of optimism and resilience, an intense appreciation of life, and a new sense of meaning,” explains Lisa.
“Learning how to live authentically, being true to yourself and aligning with your values can make a huge difference in how you approach a cancer a cancer diagnosis.”
How therapy can help
There are several ways in which therapy can help upon being diagnosed with cancer, as Sara explains:
“Therapy can help people step back from their feelings and experiences and understand themselves more. Most people find that increased understanding leads to better coping strategies, more self-compassion and more insight into how to adjust to difficult new realities.
“Therapy provides a safe and confidential space to express thoughts and feelings you wish to remain private and that you wouldn't want to share with friends and family for fear of hurting them or making things worse. It can help you to regulate your own responses and get your fear under control so that you can think more clearly and make better decisions.”
Support for families
Natasha-Rae also adds that it’s important that families feel supported at this difficult time too, saying that if you feel that you cannot share your emotions with the diagnosed family member, then it is important to seek support elsewhere.
“The best way to show up for others is to show up for yourself. Taking responsibility for the processing of your own emotions, allows you to be more present throughout any proceeding cancer treatment,” she says.
To talk to a BACP counsellor or psychotherapist about your cancer diagnosis, visit our Therapist directory.
1. Macmillan.org.uk 2024
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