5 Ways to Grieve Cancer While Staying Positive

Do you have a reaction when you hear it’s Breast Cancer Awareness month?

Is it positive or negative? 


Whether you’ve had breast cancer or any other cancer, know someone who has, or are interested in supporting awareness and research – pink (or any other color) ribbons often elicit feelings.

Have you ever said or heard one or more of the following?

  • I feel guilty my cancer wasn’t as bad as some.

  • I only have breast cancer, at least it’s not (insert any other cancer here) cancer.

  • My surgery wasn’t that bad, at least I didn’t have to have chemo.

  • Mine was just stage I.

  • I’m thankful there’s medication I can take to reduce the risk of recurrence.

  • At least I have support.

These are common reactions of many people that I see. As people try to recover physically and emotionally from a cancer diagnosis and treatment, there is a tendency to be a positive as possible, internally, from the people around you, and from the media.  This stems, in part, from our desire to avoid discomfort and anxiety, ours and that of the people we love.  

Here’s the catch, discomfort is part of being human.  It’s actually what brings us together.

In an effort to ignore or avoid uncomfortable feelings, we’ve also become experts at comparison on Facebook and Instagram. We compare our worst experience to everyone else’s best one or we only post the positive to portray certain parts of ourselves avoiding the shame of being human. The problem is that comparison and relying solely on positivity often minimizes or invalidates our experience. When that happens, anger, resentment, and loneliness start to creep in lessening our connection with others.

Being positive and acknowledging the reality of an experience are NOT mutually exclusive. 

They can occur at the same time, if you let them

I’m not advocating that we ditch positive thinking.  In fact, having hope and thinking positively can be an effective coping strategy. What I am suggesting is that we make room to lean into our discomfort a little and acknowledge difficult experiences.  Just because your cancer isn’t as advanced or required less treatment than someone else’s, doesn’t mean you breezed through it.  Being told you have any kind of cancer is jarring, and everything from diagnostic procedures to surgery, chemo and side effects can be awful. 

Taking some time to acknowledge and grieve that experience doesn’t mean you’re negative.

Giving attention to your reality and having self-compassion allows us to process these emotions in a healthy way and move forward in our lives - minimizing resentment, anger and isolation instead of our experiences.

Many people are afraid if they open that door and pay attention to the horrible experience they’ll be stuck there.

Here are 5 ways to open the door with the safety latch on:

  • Put on a timer -  set a timer for 5 or 15 minutes and think about one difficult aspect of your experience without countering it with something positive. (Avoid adding “but” to the end of the sentence). Talk to yourself as you would to a child or dear friend.

  • Spend a few minutes every couple of days writing a list of everything that sucked about your experience from the moment you got your diagnosis. Add to that list whenever you think of something appropriate.

  • Ask a friend or loved one to just listen without responding or fixing your emotion. Share one aspect of your experience that’s been horrible.

  • Write a letter to your body thanking it for everything it’s done for you – be detailed.

  • Use colored pencils, crayons, paint or clay to illustrate how you felt on your worst day.

If you need more guidance processing your experience and learning how to balance it with the rest of your life, I can help.  Please contact me for a free phone consultation.

Karen Whitehead, MS, LCSW, CCH is a clinical social worker providing counseling and hypnotherapy in Alpharetta, GA. Through compassionate person-centered care, Karen has helped hundreds of clients regain balance, overcome anxiety, and improve their quality of life. Her personal experiences have empowered her to help people experiencing anxiety along with chronic illnesses such as cancer (and their caregivers too) throughout the greater Atlanta area. Learn more about Karen and reach out here.