At a yearly checkup in 2014, Kaley Karaffa, then 27, asked in an offhand way about some swollen lymph nodes she had near her collarbone for a few months. Her doctor sent her to a surgeon to get it checked out. Several weeks, scans, and biopsies later, Karaffa learned the news: She had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.
"I was shocked," she says. "I was in the best shape of my life, exercising 6 or 7 days a week pretty vigorously, and working full-time." It was hard for Karaffa to wrap her head around the fact that she could feel so healthy and have a blood cancer.
It was the start of an emotional journey that a lot of folks go on when they get a cancer diagnosis. There are many steps you can take to get control of the wide range of feelings that may rise up inside.
Learn What to Expect
The emotions you feel can vary from week to week, day to day, even hour to hour. "You may experience denial, anger, grief, and/or confusion, and, of course, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty about what the future holds," says Leona Newman, senior information specialist with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. You may even have some unexpected and surprising feelings, she says, like guilt.
For Karaffa, one of the ways she managed the emotional storm was to gather information. "I tried to learn as much as I could about statistical outcomes and the types of treatments I could be undergoing," she says. "It helped me feel like I was taking control back."
Be Open With Others
Good communication with your treatment team and loved ones is super important. "Be honest in sharing your concerns, whether they're physical, psychological, or emotional," Newman says. You'll get better care all around when others know what you're going through.
Also give yourself permission to feel exactly the way you feel. Karaffa says her top strategy "was just recognizing that every emotion or thought I had was valid, particularly when I was dealing with fears."
There's no "right" way to react to the ups and downs of your cancer experience. What's more, naming and expressing your emotions as they truly are can often be a release, and even help you work through them.
Lean on Your Network
Take friends and family up on offers of help and support, whether it's a meal, chores around your house, or just a listening ear. Or reach out to others with your specific needs. It can be easy to slip into the feeling that you're a bother. Avoid that trap and let your loved ones help share the load, so you don't have to go it alone.
Connecting with people who also have B-cell lymphoma can also give you a mental boost. Karaffa kept an online blog. She says that helped her process her feelings and put her in touch with women who had cancers similar to hers.
"Even though some were across the world, just being able to send a message that said, 'Do you know how much it really sucks to have mouth sores?' and knowing they had actually experienced those types of side effects and fears firsthand was really helpful," Karaffa says.
Be Active When You Can
Exercise is a natural mood booster. Physical activity can help lower your chance of getting depression. Talk to your doctor about what kind of exercise you're cleared to do, and take advantage of times when you're feeling up to it.
Walking, yoga, swimming, and biking are all good ways to get your muscles moving and improve your spirits. Karaffa says she got a particular lift from group exercise classes.
"I got to be around instructors who knew me when I was healthy," she says. "They helped me focus on my physical health and encouraged me to keep my body as strong as I could despite the side effects of chemo."
Watch for Warning Signs
Keep an eye out for anxiety or depression. "You may be concerned about the effects of cancer treatment on your health and well-being, or on your partner or family," says Christin Barnett, an information specialist with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Other triggers include the possibility your disease may come back, money trouble, and keeping up with your work duties.
Barnett says it's time to pay attention and seek help from a mental health professional if you have:
- Persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Loss of interest in daily activities
- Trouble concentrating
- Change in sleeping or eating habits
- Fatigue and loss of energy most days
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
Even when your treatment for B-cell lymphoma is done, it's still important to pay attention to your mental health. Karaffa's advice for the long haul: Keep up with your skills to manage your emotional and physical health. Focus on what you can do to build up your health and keep your strength, like eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and drinking a lot of water.
"I try to live a healthy and balanced lifestyle," she says. "Some days that's going out for a 4-mile walk, and other days it's curling up on the couch with my dogs and my husband and enjoying that. It's all about striking a balance and finding what you need to do in the moment."