The Unmatched Grief of Battling Chronic Cancer
Cancer victims need an open arena of validation for recovery and healing.
Posted November 9, 2020
A chronic battle with cancer presents unyielding challenges to its victims, and foremost in these trials is the distinctive grief that accompanies protracted cancer diagnoses. Cancer victims who are fighting for their lives every minute of every day, for years at a time, fall prey to devastating loss that often goes unnamed—only serving to swell its power and destructiveness. The unique grief that goes along with chronic cancer must be recognized and acknowledged in order for its sufferers to heal.
Cancer has been given the distinction of being one of the leading causes of death worldwide, and its viciousness is only increasing. Millions of lives every year are lost on the shores of horrific cancer battles, with even more lives irreversibly altered as individuals accustom themselves to the “new normal” of a chronic illness. In the midst of these storms, real people are losing the meaning that once filled their lives at an alarming rate, and there is not enough discussion happening about how to combat these crises.
The power of cancer does not lie solely in its ability to kill. Cancer wields remarkable force in the way it robs us of the security and warmth of normalcy. Transforming from an active, athletic individual who loves physical challenges to someone who cannot stand up in the morning without bone-searing pain and finds it too excruciating to walk downstairs is a “cancer statistic” that very few people acknowledge. Likewise is losing the ability to impulsively plan an outing with friends because every excursion now has to take into consideration potential health emergencies, pain monitoring and treatment, physical safety, and easily depleted energy levels.
There are multiple, everyday ways that cancer cheats people of life before it ever kills them:
- Loss of relationships: Many friends and loved ones gradually drift away, not out of malice, but simply due to the changing focus of a cancer victim’s life—from always being available to talk or spend time together to juggling medical appointments and living the harsh reality of every cell being focused on survival. Conversations change, commonalities dissipate, and many cancer patients find themselves feeling guilty for their inability to focus on those “normal” daily experiences.
- Destruction of hobbies: People suffering from chronic cancer often find their hobbies are not only physically impossible but have lost their flavor. Activities that used to bring joy—hikes in the mountains, swimming, sewing, etc.—become insurmountably painful and exhausting, scattering the delight they used to bring into melancholy piles. Losing the contentment and ability to relish enjoyable activities can be distressing and demoralizing, particularly in the middle of a fight for your life.
- The sacrifice of dreams: The long-awaited and worked for college degree, that recent promotion that took years to achieve, the desire for a big family—all can be laid to waste in the path of destruction that cancer brings. The everyday joy that many take for granted becomes a pipe dream, an impossibility, an unattainable pleasure. Reveries that have long been the catalyst for living and breathing become burnt offerings at cancer’s altar.
- Financial fears: Chronic health diagnoses and their treatments are costly. They generate financial insecurity in the short and long term and often forfeit ambitions that can no longer be afforded. Many individuals find their bucket list of travel opportunities, the dream home they have been saving for, even everyday needs capitulated to the voracious appetite of cancer.
- Missing everyday experiences: Cancer is debilitating, both mentally and physically. It drops victims into a void where energy becomes laser-focused on endurance. One of the grimmest ways cancer sufferers experience grief is in the loss of everyday life interactions. Reading to your kids at night before bed, eating dinner with the family, going to a loved one’s graduation, seeing your child take their first steps, debating the news with your significant other at the end of the day… cancer has an exceptional way of stealing these precious moments from daily life, and they can never be revisited or reclaimed.
- Losing a sense of your future: Chronic cancer feels like a death sentence waiting to be enacted for many of its victims. The agony of wondering if the end is near leaves many feeling hyper-vigilant and terrified, desperately clawing their way through gruesome treatment methods in the hopes of staving off the monster for a few more months. At the core of these fears, the future often becomes a detached, hazy fantasy. Plans for next year, the anticipation of upcoming holidays, looking forward to the birth of a grandchild, or the wedding coming up soon—all transform into unknowns, abounding in apprehension and anxiety of becoming too attached in case illness or death prevents them. Many chronic cancer victims stop making plans altogether, exchanging their hope for much-needed durability and stamina in the moment.
The experience of a chronic illness, particularly cancer, is unique to its victims. The incomparable grief that strikes at their lives must not be trivialized and needs to be aired out, in open conversation, to promote healing and recovery. Supporters should not be afraid to ask meaningful questions or frightened of the potential answers. Empathy lies in the understanding that chronic cancer changes every instant of a person’s life and forces them to embark on a journey they did not choose, they did not want, and they may not complete.
As with all grief, there is no “correct” way to respond or support. The strength of helping comes in the form of authentication of the process and validation of the experience. For cancer victims, relief can be felt when there is an allowance of grieving and an understanding of the extraordinary annihilation keeping its company.
Cancer is a thief. It slips unnoticed into our lives, commanding undivided attention and unleashing nameless terror in its wake. It creates senseless vacuums, extracting the meaning of life and turning it upside-down. For many, the journey is laden with such angst they will never be the same—but will be altered, transformed, and modified to the contours of the unparalleled demands they will face. Rising from the ashes of cancer is a remarkable expedition that would not take place without recognition of the tremendous sacrifices that accompany it.
Ferlay J, Ervik M, Lam F, Colombet M, Mery L, Piñeros M, Znaor A, Soerjomataram I, Bray F (2018). Global Cancer Observatory: Cancer Today. Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer. Available from: https://gco.iarc.fr/today.