Last week, we covered denial and anger as part of the 5 stages of grief. Cancer, whether you’ve been diagnosed or are a loved one, affects us in a variety of ways, which also means there are a variety of emotions, reactions, and coping mechanisms. However, regardless of the way cancer affects your mental health, the common denominator for everyone who goes through cancer lies in loss. It can be small or big, but it’s there (read more about loss during cancer). This causes grief, and understanding what grief can look like helps us better cope with that loss and process our new reality.
This week, we’re focusing on bargaining, a stage that’s not as obvious to understand from its name. Let’s explore what it is and how it might manifest itself during cancer.
What is bargaining?
To bargain is defined as “an agreement between parties settling what each gives or receives in a transaction between them.” It is a negotiation. We want to make right what has gone wrong.
When we lose something, we wonder if we can do something now in order to make up for what we’ve lost, or get back life as it was. We wonder what we could have done differently and try to bargain our way to a better situation. These negotiative thoughts are usually directed towards oneself or a higher being. Our minds fill with “if only” and “what if” statements:
If only I had gone to the doctor a few months ago, when the thought first came to me…
What if I’d eaten differently? Been nicer to the people around me?
If I get through this, I promise I’ll always…
Why is this happening?
What if I had done this or not done that?
This questioning often causes us to feel guilty, which is why guilt is seen as the sibling of bargaining. By thinking that we can change the outcome, we feel guilty for not having done so and find fault in ourselves and others.
Bargaining and cancer
During the bargaining phase, some may feel that being diagnosed with cancer is unfair and want to right this wrong. New studies show that a specific part of the human brain is actually responsible for punishing unfairness. Unfortunately, in the case of cancer, we often end up punishing ourselves because there’s no one else to blame. Just to clarify, you’re not to blame either. At all.
These thoughts and questions can come and go, and perhaps during different phases of your experience with cancer – shortly after diagnosis, 9 months into treatment, or before you lose a loved one but know the end is near. These moments of grief do not last constantly for days or weeks or months. They come and go, just like other thoughts. The fear is there. And then it fades, before it comes back again. It’s normal that “what if” and “if only” questions occasionally creep back into the crevasses of your mind, even after you feel you’ve moved past them.
Another aspect to take into account during the bargaining phase of grief is where we live mentally – the past, the present, or the future. Ruminating over “what if” and “if only” statements keeps us locked in the past – we spend time thinking that we can, in fact, do something to change the past by negotiating with it. Once we’re able to accept that we can’t do anything to change the fact that we or someone we love has cancer, we free our minds from the constant pull of the past and into the reality of the present, however difficult it may be to face.
Thankfully, there are ways to help us move forward and give us strength to move past the what-if thinking and into the what-now thinking.
How to cope with bargaining during cancer
First off, remember that, as with every stage of grief, it’s important to accept that it’s part of the process rather than ignore it, pushing it down or to the side or wherever it is you don’t have to face it.
Instead, a helpful way to relieve guilt and overthinking is to find a way to articulate your thoughts. It can help clarify what you’re feeling or why, and bring you to the present moment with fresh eyes.
Another helpful way to cope is to not only create your own narrative of thoughts, but share them with others. Walk through your emotions and begin to understand what happened, how it feels, and release your worries, knowing you’re not alone. Join the War On Cancer app to share your story with others who get it. It’s a place of encouragement and support, but not the fake or shallow kind. Questions. Thoughts. Denial. Shock. Guilt. We get it. Or/and open up to a family member or friend you trust.
If you feel yourself stuck in the past and unable to move past bargaining, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional who can guide you through. You can also listen in to our live event with psychologist Dag Härdfeldt about how to cope with a cancer diagnosis. After all, you’re facing a mountain you’ve never climbed – mentally and physically. It’s ridiculous to assume you need to ascend it alone and without the tools necessary.
Join the conversation on how to cope with cancer and where you’re at in the War On Cancer app.
The information shared does not constitute a medical consultation and is not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with your doctor or other qualified health providers for questions regarding a medical condition, especially during the active period of Corona / Covid19. Please do not disregard professional health provider advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read here. In the event of a medical emergency, call a doctor, 112 or 911 immediately.