Understanding and Recognizing Depression and other Difficult Emotions

You've probably felt a range of feelings during your cancer experience. You may have had these feelings at other times, too, but they may be more intense now. There are many profound losses that accompany the experience of cancer and it is normal to mourn each and every one.

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"I feel it's important to me that I live each day to the fullest, and make peace with my relatives and friends and develop loving relationships with them." - Kate


You can feel a sense of hope, despite your cancer. But what you hope for changes with time. If you have been told that remission may not be possible, you can hope for other things. These may include comfort, peace, acceptance, even joy. Hoping may give you a sense of purpose. This, in itself, may help you feel better.

To build a sense of hope, set goals to look forward to each day. Plan something to get your mind off the cancer. Here are some tips from others with advanced stage cancer:

  • Plan your days as you've always done.
  • Don't stop doing the things you like to do just because you have cancer.
  • Find small things in life to look forward to each day.

You can also set dates and events to look forward to. Don't limit yourself. Look for reasons to hope, while staying aware of what's at hand.

Inner strength

"My biggest struggle is that I need help, but I don't want people to give me too much of it. I want to do what I can for myself. If I have to work at something, there's a reason to live." - Will

People with cancer find strength they didn't know they had. You may have felt overwhelmed when you first learned that your doctors couldn't control your cancer. And now you aren't coping as well as you did in the past. But your feelings of helplessness may change. You may find physical and emotional reserves you didn't know you had. Calling on your inner strength can help revive your spirit.

Some people find it helpful to focus on the present instead of the past or future. They start a new daily routine. They accept that it may have to be different from the old routine. Others like to plan ahead and set goals. With places to go and things to do, life stretches out before them. Others focus on the relationships they have with people close to them. Inner strength is different for each person. So draw on the things in your life that are meaningful to you.

Sadness and depression

It's normal to feel sad. You may have no energy or not want to eat. It's okay to cry or express your sadness in another way. You don't have to be upbeat all the time or pretend to be cheerful in front of others.

Pretending to feel okay when you don't doesn't help you feel better. And it may even create barriers between you and your loved ones. So don't hold it in. Do what feels natural to you.

Depression can happen if sadness or despair seems to take over your life. Some of the signs below are normal during a time like this. Talk to your doctor if they last for more than 2 weeks. Some symptoms could be due to physical problems. It's important to tell someone on your health care team about them.

Signs of depression
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless, or that life has no meaning
  • Having no interest in family, friends, hobbies, or things you used to enjoy
  • Losing your appetite
  • Feeling short-tempered and grouchy
  • Not being able to get certain thoughts out of your mind
  • Crying for long periods of time or many times each day
  • Thinking about hurting or killing yourself
  • Feeling "wired," having racing thoughts or panic attacks
  • Having sleep problems, such as not being able to sleep, having nightmares, or sleeping too much.

Your doctor can treat depression with medicine. He or she also may suggest that you talk about your feelings. You can do this with a psychologist or counselor. Or you may want to join a support group.


"I heard the doctor say, 'I'm so sorry, but . . .' and then I heard nothing else. My head was spinning, and I kept saying to myself, 'No, the doctor must be making a mistake.'" - Rosa

We all cope with loss or the threat of loss in different ways. You may feel sadness, loneliness, anger, fear, and guilt. Or you may find the way you think changes from time to time. For example, you may get easily confused or feel lost. Or your thoughts may repeat themselves over and over again. You may also find yourself low in energy. You may not want to do things or see people. These are all normal reactions to grief.

What you grieve for is as varied as how you think and feel. You may be grieving for the loss of your body as it used to be. You may grieve for the things you used to be able to do. You also may grieve losing what you have left: yourself, your family, your friends, your future.

Let your loved ones know if you want to talk. Let them know if you just want to sit quietly with them. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Often people who go through major change and loss need extra help. You can talk with a member of your health care team, a member of your faith community, or a mental health professional. You don't have to go through this alone.


"I feel like the reality of this cancer isn't going to go away if I deny it. If I did that, I might miss the comfort I get from sharing fears and concerns. I don't want to miss the sense of well-being I have knowing I have taken care of my loved ones." - Carrie

It's hard to accept the news that your cancer has spread or can no longer be controlled. And it's natural to need some time to adjust. But this can become a serious problem if it lasts longer than a few weeks. It can keep you from getting the care you need or talking about your treatment choices. As time passes, try to keep an open mind. Listen to what others around you suggest for your care.


The feeling of "No, not me!" often changes to "Why me?" or "What's next?" You have a lot to deal with right now. It's normal and healthy to feel angry. You don't have to pretend that everything is okay. You may be mad at your doctor, family members, neighbors, and even yourself. Some people get angry with God and question their faith.

At first, anger can help by moving you to take action. You may decide to learn more about different treatment options. Or you may become more involved in the care you are getting. But anger doesn't help if you hold it in too long or take it out on others. Often the people closest to us are the ones who have to deal with our anger, whether we want that or not.

It may help to figure out why you are angry. This isn't always easy. Sometimes anger comes from feelings that are hard to show, such as fear, panic, worry, or helplessness. But being open and dealing with your anger may help you let go of it. Anger is also a form of energy. It may help to express this energy through exercise or physical activity, art, or even just hitting the bed with a pillow.


"I know my friends try to understand. It doesn't matter what I say though--they just don't get it. I can't even begin to explain to them how I feel or what's going on. I'm not saying it's their fault or anything. It's just hard." - Jennifer

You may feel alone, even if you have lots of people around you who care. You may feel that no one really understands what you're going through. And as the cancer progresses, you may see family, friends, or coworkers less often. You may find yourself alone more than you would like. Some people may even distance themselves from you because they have a hard time coping with your cancer. This can make you feel really alone.

Although some days may be harder than others, remember that you aren't alone. Keep doing the things you've always done the best you can. If you want to, tell people that you don't want to be alone. Let them know that you welcome their visits.

More than likely, your loved ones are feeling many of the same things you are. They, too, may feel cut off from you if they can't talk with you. You may also want to try joining a support group. There you can talk with others who share your feelings.

Getting support

Your feelings will come and go, just as they always have in your life. It helps to have some strategies to deal with them.

First, know that you aren't alone. Many people have been in your situation. Some choose to confide in friends and family members. Others do better when they join a support group. It helps them to talk with others who are facing the same challenges.

cancer support

Norris Cotton Cancer Center offers support groups for all age groups and types of cancer. Many are offered over the phone so you can call in. Call (603) 650-7551 or email to learn more.

If support groups don't appeal to you, Norris Cotton Cancer Center also offers survivorship services to help you cope with the lasting effects of cancer. Education and counseling services are offered by social workers, psychologists, nurse practitioners, and counselors.

Many people also find faith as their source of support. They may seek comfort from the different members of their faith community. Or they may find that talking to a leader in their religious or spiritual community can be helpful. If you need help finding faith-based support, contact our chaplaincy program.

Celebrating your life

Having advanced cancer often gives people a chance to look back on life and all they have done. They like to look at the different roles they have played throughout life. They think about what something meant at the time, and what it means now. Some gather things that have meaning to them to give to their loved ones. Others share memories or projects with loved ones.

Doing these things is often called "making a legacy" for yourself. It can be whatever you want. Don't limit yourself! And you can do these things alone or with others close to you. Some examples of ways people have celebrated their lives are:

Mary Braun reads from her journal

Mary Braun reads from her journal "Goodbye Leukemia" at the 2012 Poems of Illness and Healing event. Register for our next Writing Group for those touched by cancer offered Tuesdays 2:00 to 3:30 p.m. from 1/15/13 to 2/19/13 by calling (603) 650-7751.

  • Making a video of special memories
  • Reviewing or arranging family photo albums
  • Charting or writing down your family's history or family tree
  • Keeping a daily journal of your feelings and experiences
  • Making a scrapbook
  • Writing notes or letters to loved ones and children
  • Reading or writing poetry
  • Creating artwork, knitting, or making jewelry
  • Giving meaningful objects or mementos to loved ones
  • Writing down or recording funny or meaningful stories from your past
  • Making a recording of favorite songs
  • Gathering favorite recipes into a cookbook
Finding joy

Living with advanced stage cancer may bring many challenges and hardships. But it can also be a time of fulfillment and joy. Keep living your life the best that you can and in the fullest way possible.

Source: National Cancer Institute

December 17, 2012