Grief, cancer and you

Palliative care social worker, Dr Nelia Drenth, gives profound insight on what grieving the loss of a healthy body encompasses.


What is grief?

Grief is how you react after a loss. You don’t only grieve when someone you love dies. You also grieve, although slightly different, when illness strikes. 

Grieving often starts from the moment you realise that something may be wrong with your health and continues long after you’re in remission. 

Experts describe grief as a wavelike experience. Grief comes and goes. Sometimes you face the waves and are able to stay on your feet. Other times, your back is turned towards the waves and you’re caught off-guard. 

Grieving the loss of a healthy body 

The shock of a cancer diagnosis and the uncertainty and the fear about the future often throws you in deep turmoil. And, then even more emotions, such as sadness, depression, guilt and loneliness are triggered. 

It’s not only emotions that are triggered. You will find that your behaviour changes too. You react in strange and different ways. People tell you that they don’t know this person who reacts so differently, and you don’t know yourself. 

You go through meditations and prayers to find answers to what has happened to you – touching on the spiritual being you are. 

Apart from being diagnosed with cancer and the fatigue and physical symptoms that go with it, you also experience other physical symptoms not directly related to the diagnosis. 

And to top it all, you are unable to concentrate and focus on the activities of daily living. This is exactly what grief does to you. You are grieving the loss of a healthy body. You are grieving shattered dreams after a diagnosis of cancer. 

How long will the grief last?

The intensity and length of grief after a diagnosis depends on many things. 

Sometimes you find it hard to absorb the bad news that was given to you.Was the doctor caring when he gave you the diagnosis? Or were you just given the hard facts? This may sadden you, or stir up some anger, or make you feel like crawling under the duvet and just staying there. 

You most probably also know of someone who was diagnosed with cancer. This knowledge can create fear and anxiety which can reach a bit further than the uncertainty about treatment. It includes the fear of how you and those close to you will be able to cope with the changes in your health status. It includes grieving the scars that will be left, the potential hair loss, and much more. 

The intensity of your grief also depends on your age and the responsibilities that you carry: if you still have young children to care for; if your parents are depending on you for support; or if you are in the later stage of life and your children are all living in another country. 

How to manage grief in the face of cancer

It’s interesting to note that in life you are forced to move between your feelings of loss (grief, denial and despair). But, then on the other side, the fact that you must, and surprisingly, can continue with life. 

Sometimes you may need to stay longer with the loss and acknowledge the emotions. While at other times you are able to continue with the tasks at hand and with the future. 

There is a Chinese proverb that says: “If he ignores the dragon, it will eat him; if he tries to confront the dragon, it will overwhelm him. But if he rides the dragon, he will take advantage of its might and power.”

This proverb always reminds me of the strengths inside all of us. You can identify these strengths in:

  • Your aspirations – dreams, goals, hopes for the future, and motivation to grow. 
  • Your competencies – skills and talents. 
  • Positive self-regard and the belief that you can achieve your goals, despite the grief you experience.  
  • Support from family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.
  • Access to resources, such as treatment options, finances, and care.

It’s these strengths that gives us the courage to build resilience in continuing living a full life with gratitude. 

Dr Nelia Drenth is a palliative care social worker in private practice in 
Pretoria, Gauteng. She presents workshops on psychosocial palliative care 
and bereavement counselling and has a passion for social work in healthcare.

MEET OUR EXPERT – Dr Nelia Drenth

Dr Nelia Drenth is a palliative care social worker in private practice in Pretoria, Gauteng. She presents workshops on psychosocial palliative care and bereavement counselling and has a passion for social work in healthcare.


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