Coping With Emotions

A Second Cancer: How to Cope With Feeling Unlucky

If you're diagnosed with a second cancer, you will undoubtedly have many questions about what the new diagnosis means for your future. You can also expect to face a host of emotions too.

If you’ve beaten cancer once, you may believe that experience has earned you a lifetime supply of good luck. And maybe it has. But cancer survivors can develop a second cancer later that’s unrelated to the original disease.

You’ll undoubtedly have many questions about that cancer, how to treat it and what the new diagnosis means for your future. You can also expect to face a host of emotions, too. Here are strategies to help you cope.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

Receiving a second cancer diagnosis is almost like buckling into a roller coaster: a wild ride is sure to follow, and you’re bound to get shaken up in the process. Just like with your first cancer diagnosis, expect strong emotions: fear, grief and shock are some of the most common.

You may find yourself feeling angry, too — angry that you have to face cancer again and perhaps even furious with your doctor for not “fixing” you the first time. The Mayo Clinic advises you to remember that you and your doctor made treatment choices based on the information you had at that time.

You probably already know ignoring your feelings won’t make life any easier. In fact, doing so may make it harder to focus on what’s important right now, which is being with your family and making medical decisions. So let yourself feel all the emotions (even the painful ones), and then get down to business.

Build on Your Strengths

Nobody would choose to experience cancer, especially a second time. But here you are, a seasoned veteran. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, many patients find that their previous experience better prepares them to face the challenge of another cancer diagnosis.

Consider the resources that experience has given you:

  • You now know more than you ever expected to about cancer. Use this knowledge to ask good questions and combat fear.
  • You now have a medical team you trust. Those past relationships should make you feel supported and secure. If not, it’s never too late to make necessary changes.
  • You’re now an insider of the medical system, and you understand your insurance and how to get the most out of it.
  • Even if the new cancer requires different treatments than the first one, you’re familiar with some cancer treatments and have learned coping techniques for managing side effects.
  • You have probably developed a self-care routine that works, whether it involves yoga, massage, meditation, hobbies or social gatherings. Additionally, you probably established an emotional support network to help you through the tough times.

Seek Support as Needed

Just because you’re a pro at being a cancer patient doesn’t mean you have all the answers. In particular, the “why” of your current situation may be overwhelming as you adjust to life with a second cancer diagnosis. But the American Cancer Society points out that knowing the answer to that question won’t change what happens next and that worrying about it can drain you of energy that’s better used for coping with the illness.

If you decide a support group might be beneficial, consider what type of group to pursue. You may want to ask for a referral to a group that focuses on recurrent or additional cancers if you think that being with many cancer novices might add to your stress. On the other hand, every cancer case is unique, so if you want to be with others working to digest a new diagnosis, seek out that type of group.

Whatever you’re experiencing, don’t hesitate to express your feelings to your doctor. After all, you’ll need the best information possible to make the right treatment decisions for yourself.

UVA Cancer Center offers a variety of services that support cancer patients, including those who are newly diagnosed.

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Darcy Lewis
Darcy Lewis