Iris Oncology
Navigating Emotions

Acceptance: Reimagining Your Relationship with Control

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can cause sudden disruption to your daily life, body, work, relationships, and perspectives. It can be tough to adapt not only your life and normal daily routine, but also your mindset and mental outlook around these changes. The struggle to cope with unwanted change can take up so much mental energy that you may find it hard to focus on other parts of your life. Keep in mind that there are many different stages in the process of adapting to change, especially when that change involves unwelcome losses.  

When things change, we need to take some time to recalibrate to our new normal. Accepting an unwelcome change is a process that can involve many stages including denial, anger, and sadness. Many people with cancer find that if they allow themselves time to process and adapt, they can get to a place of accepting. Try to find some meaning in the way your life has changed post-diagnosis.  

What is Acceptance?

Acceptance isn’t about liking your situation or letting go of your emotions around your cancer diagnosis, it’s more about making peace with your current situation and the way your life has changed. From changes in normal daily life and schedule to a loss of bodily function and ability, a cancer diagnosis can feel like a loss of control over one’s life and body. Coupled with doctor’s appointments and the need to go through treatment, a cancer diagnosis can be extremely hard to accept.  

Accepting distress is not about having to like emotional discomfort, or being resigned to feeling miserable, or wallowing in negative emotions. Instead, accepting distress is about seeing the negative emotion for what it is and changing how you pay attention to the emotion. Reacting in an accepting way towards your emotion often changes the effect the emotion has on you.

Why is Acceptance Important?

Acceptance is about reimagining your relationship with control. Practicing acceptance is important because it not only gives you control over your diagnosis and outlook, but it can impact your ability to navigate your diagnosis and adapt to changes. Gaining skills in acceptance can reduce the amount of emotional distress experienced after a cancer diagnosis and during treatment or supportive care.   

How to Increase Acceptance for Your New Normal

There are three components of acceptance: awareness (you recognize the stressful situation, thoughts, and emotions), maintaining non-judgment (you do not judge the situation, thoughts, emotions, or yourself), and making room (you allow a distressing emotion, thought, memory, or situation to be present). We know that this is easier said than done — acceptance doesn’t happen overnight and will take time and practice.

Thinking about acceptance in terms of metaphors is a way to visualize and more easily understand how you might increase your ability to accept your diagnosis.   

  1. Imagine Cancer as Background Noise: A helpful exercise is to imagine cancer as the “noise” in your life. It is sometimes loud and overwhelming, and other times soft and in the background. Now imagine that you have a dimmer switch and can control the volume. What would that be like for you? 

  2. Imagine Cancer as a Tug-of-War: Imagine a tug-of-war between you and the thing you don’t want. If you are tugging and engaging with it, you are working hard and struggling to keep the tension on the rope. If you let go, the thing is still there, but you are not struggling with it or working so hard against it.  

  3. Imagine Cancer as a Struggle Switch: One way to picture acceptance is to imagine that you have a struggle switch in the back of your mind. When the switch is “on,” you struggle against your feelings. You try your best to get rid of or avoid any discomfort you have. When the struggle switch is on and a negative feeling arises, you think, “Oh no! Here’s that horrible feeling again. Why does it keep coming back? I have to get rid of it! What should I do?” Oftentimes, this makes the feeling worse, and you are caught in a vicious cycle. Now, suppose you could turn the struggle switch to “off.” In this case, you don’t struggle with your feelings or thoughts, no matter how unpleasant they are. When the feeling shows up, you think, “Okay. There’s my feeling, but the struggle switch is off. I’m simply letting the feeling pass through me. This is what it feels like in my body, and these are thoughts that come with it.” By doing this you are acknowledging the feeling and letting it be there, but not making it worse by struggling with it.  

It’s impossible to avoid thoughts and emotions that come up in response to your cancer diagnosis and its impact on your life. Acknowledging those thoughts and emotions, but not struggling with them, may be a new way of facing distress. Letting go of the struggle allows you to experience feelings and thoughts without letting them control you. Contact an Iris mental health therapist to discuss how you can develop additional strategies for coping.  

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.