Sadness is a natural, normal reaction to a cancer diagnosis, treatment and even remission. While it may feel unpleasant, sadness is not a "bad" emotion and should not be brushed away, says Dennis Buttimer, M.Ed., CEAP, RYT, a facilitator at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. Rather, it is one that should be felt fully and managed responsibly. Here, Buttimer shares his tips for understanding and honoring sadness.
Understanding sadness after a cancer diagnosis
"Being sad is a natural reaction to a cancer diagnosis for many people," he says. "We all have plans for our lives, from what we plan to do this week to what we hope to do years from now. Cancer isn't something we plan on."
Allow yourself to feel sadness
Buttimer emphasizes the importance of dealing with sadness as it comes up. Otherwise, it will likely come back later in another form.
"It is better to work with your feelings proactively and let yourself feel sadness rather than stuffing the emotion away," he explains.
Allowing yourself to feel emotions has proven health benefits and is particularly good for your immune system.
"Research has found when you express an emotion, your physiology relaxes," says Buttimer. "You don't have as much tension or inflammation in the body. How you deal with your emotions and stress has a real, direct bearing on your health."
Leaning into sadness
Leaning into the emotion can help you feel it, then let it go and move forward with your day. Here is an example of "leaning into" your sadness:
"Whenever you are feeling sad, notice the feeling and breathe into it for two minutes. Don't try to hurry up and get rid of it. Acknowledge you are feeling sad. Let the feeling wash over you like a wave washes over you at the beach. While you can't stop the wave from coming, you can let it wash over you, then wash back out to sea," suggests Buttimer.
Managing sadness after a cancer diagnosis
Managing sadness is an important part of your cancer journey, whether you are newly diagnosed, a caregiver or in remission. Here are Buttimer's tips:
Allow yourself to cry. "Many men and women won't allow themselves to cry. However, crying is a natural healing mechanism."
Attend a support group. Other attendees can provide empathy and support because they understand what you are going through.
Keep a journal and record your feelings.
Listen to your body. Pay attention to the bodily sensations that come up when you are feeling sadness. Some people describe a tightening in their chest when they are sad. Bring your hand to the part of your body where you feel the tension and breathe into it.
Practice mindfulness meditation, which will help you connect your physical senses to your feelings.
Speak with a trusted friend, counselor or coach.
Sadness when cancer treatment is over
For some people, feelings of sadness occur when cancer treatment concludes and they don't see their care team or support group often.
"You would think it would be the complete opposite. You're finished with treatment and that's good news, so therefore you should be happy," says Buttimer. "However, during treatment, your medical team might have become like a trusted family and all of a sudden, you've 'grown up' and are leaving the nest. You may have grief during this transition. Even in a positive transition, there are elements of sadness or grief."
Sadness versus depression during cancer treatment
While feeling sad is a normal reaction to a cancer diagnosis or treatment, sometimes feelings can be too much to manage on your own.
"It's okay to spend a day in bed after receiving a cancer diagnosis," says Buttimer. "But if sadness disrupts your daily life for several weeks, it is time to seek professional support."
Ask your nurse or physician about a referral to a counselor or therapist who works with people undergoing cancer treatment.
Learn more about the difference between sadness and depression.