A Cancer Patient's Guide to Forgiving Yourself and Others

hand reaching out toward the sun representing letting go with cancer
Libertad Leal Photography / Getty Images

Learning to forgive yourself, other people, and for some people, God, can improve the quality of life for people with cancer. That said, it is much easier to suggest that someone else "learn to let go" than to do so ourselves. Even though anger, resentment, and fear don't feel good, and take away from the precious time we do have, it can be daunting to know where to begin. We will look more at the meaning and importance of forgiveness and letting go, give some examples of situations in which others with cancer have had to practice forgiveness, and provide some simple steps you can use to begin letting go of those negative feelings so you can live fully after a diagnosis of cancer.

What Does It Mean to Forgive and Let Go?

Letting go and forgiving doesn't mean giving up. It doesn't mean placing any less emphasis on your treatment. It doesn't mean it is okay if someone has hurt you. It simply means letting go of negative thoughts you may harbor that don't contribute (and can take away from) your ability to live fully. It means naming, and then releasing deep-seated fears, anger, and resentments so that you are freer to enjoy positive emotions.

Forgiveness and letting go does not mean that it is OK if someone has hurt you.

While forgiveness is a step in letting go, it doesn't mean forgetting your past mistakes or dismissing ways in which you have been hurt by the actions of others. It only means that you don't rehearse and dwell on your former mistakes and the insults of others in a way that keeps them at the forefront of your mind as if they were happening today. In this way, forgiveness is healing.

Reasons for Hanging on to Hurts and Fears?

If anger and resentment serve no purpose in our lives and can actually harm us, why do we hang on so tightly to bitterness and regret?

Sometimes it's because we haven't identified our deep-seated fears and anger. It's difficult to deal with feelings and emotions if we are unaware of them.

Other times these feelings almost become our identity.

And yet other times we cling to our hurts in a form of victim mentality, a mindset that essentially says, "You win, you are a valuable person." In this sense, rehearsing the ways you have been slighted and harm may be done subconsciously to prove your value to yourself. Fortunately, there are ways beyond harboring anger and resentment that can remind you that your feelings matter.

The Consequences of Not Letting Go

While there is controversy over the impact that anger and resentment have on cancer survival, one thing is clear; taking the time to rehearse resentment and harbor hurts steals precious time from our lives—whether that means 9 days or 90 years. What could you be doing or enjoying during the time you are currently nursing your anger and hurt?

If you're struggling with forgiving another person who has hurt you, you may want to ask yourself. "Do I really want to give that person another hour of my life as I re-live the hurt." By not forgiving, you may in essence be turning your power over to your offender.

If your anger is about your own poor choices, consider asking yourself: "Will it help me to chastise myself yet one more time?" Probably not. Letting go may not improve your survival odds, but it will do one thing for certain. It will free you to use the hours you have left to do something that feels good instead.

Studies are now backing up what has been intuitive. For example, a 2017 study found that self-forgiveness among people with cancer was associated with less psychological distress and a greater sense of hope.

Things Someone With Cancer May Wish to Let Go Of

You may know there are things you should let go, but there are likely others that don't immediately jump to the surface of your thoughts. You may want to let go of:

  • Anything that begins with the phrase: "What if...."
  • Anything that goes along with the phrases "could've, would've, and should've."
  • Anger at your diagnosis. You may have asked: "Why me?" Perhaps you were first misdiagnosed, or your diagnosis was delayed. You may feel angry at the way in which cancer has disrupted your life plans, and feel bitter about the symptoms and side effects of your cancer and cancer treatments.
  • Anger related to survivor guilt. Many people who are involved in cancer communities ask themselves not only "why me," but "why not me" when friends with cancer progress or die from the disease.
  • Control of your relationships. It's been said that the one thing that is constant with cancer, is change. Relationships almost always change after a diagnosis of cancer. Perhaps you are frustrated and angry at someone you considered a close friend, but that friend essentially disappeared after your diagnosis; vanished at a time when you needed support more than ever. Or, in contrast, perhaps you feel smothered or pitied by others.

10 Steps to Forgiving and Letting Go to Live

Okay, so it's good to let go. But where do you begin? If you're ready to cast off those heavy burdens, try these steps.

1. Name It

An important first step in letting go is to identify your anger, fears, anxieties, and resentments. Until you name what is standing between you and happiness it is hard to address it, and you may just have a vague sense of injustice. Looking at a list of feeling words may help you clarify what you are feeling, and then look to the cause of that feeling. For example, are you feeling shame, regret, anger, bitterness, disappointment or a combination of several of these emotions?

2. Consider Journaling 

Keeping a journal can be an excellent way to both define and express things that are eating at you. That said, it's important to use journaling to clarify and address your thoughts, rather than as a way to ruminate on the ways you have been hurt.

3. Reflect 

Whatever hurts you have received or have dealt out in the past, you have probably mentally re-lived dozens of times. Take a final moment to review and reflect on issues that have caused you to be angry. Feel your emotions fully, as you prepare to let them go.

4. Express Yourself 

Expressing your negative emotions is a way to acknowledge them to yourself, and sometimes to others. This may mean talking aloud to yourself, perhaps crying, and maybe screaming a bit. Some people prefer to express their feelings in writing. If someone has hurt you, you may want to write them a letter, or, if that person is not approachable, write a letter to them that you don't send. If you are feeling a lot of anger you may wish to jot down your thoughts on paper, and then shred it or burn it.

When we are treated unfairly (or what we believe is unfair) we often have a strong desire to confront the one who has hurt us and receive an apology. When this happens, it can be hard to know when to speak, and when to be silent. A question you may wish to ask yourself before confronting a friend or family member is this: "Is it more important for me to be right or to be loving?" (It's also important to realize that some people such as those with what was once called narcissistic personality disorder do not respond well to confrontation, and instead of apologizing may deal out more hurt to protect their fragile egos—not what you need when coping with cancer.)

5. Forgive

Perhaps the most difficult step in letting go is forgiveness. Sometimes you may need to forgive your spouse or another person, but other times it is yourself you need to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or allowing others to continue to hurt you in any way. It does not mean that something that happened to you is okay. Instead, it means that you refuse to let whatever grievances you hold against yourself or others to continue hurting you by stealing your joy today. By forgiving those who hurt you, you take back your power. Forgiveness means that you refuse to devote your energy to someone who has hurt you. Forgiveness is healing.

6. Make Amends

Is there anyone in your life who holds a grudge against you? If so, that doesn't necessarily mean you need to ask them for forgiveness. But for those loved ones and friends who you feel safe talking with—who, basically, are forgiving people themselves—consider bringing up an issue (once) and asking for forgiveness. It may surprise you how a simple request for forgiveness can soften hearts.

7. Reframe and Look for Silver Linings and Lessons

There are often two ways of looking at any situation. Cognitive reframing is a method of looking at an experience in a different way—a way of changing your perception. For example, instead of mourning your hair loss during chemotherapy, you can talk about how nice it is not having to shave your legs for several months. Sometimes reframing only requires a change of words, for example, instead of viewing something as exhausting, you could view it as challenging.

Looking for silver linings is another way of looking at the same situation but experiencing it in a different way. For example, instead of thinking of the activities you have given up during cancer treatment, you may think of the friendships you would not have formed were it not for your diagnosis of cancer.

Even if reframing is not possible and you are having a hard time finding silver linings, you may want to think of the lessons you have learned in the process of experiencing emotional pain caused by others or yourself. Many experiences in our lives, though painful, teach us valuable lessons. If you have been hurt, what have you been doing that allowed you to be hurt?

It is actually some of these "lessons" that lie behind a new area of research into posttraumatic growth in cancer patients; or ways in which cancer can lead to positive changes in a person's life.

8. Meditate, Pray, or Commune With Nature 

Spirituality can play a powerful role in releasing anger and fear. Some people find solace by walking outside in nature. Others find comfort in prayer, while yet others choose meditation, deep breathing, or creating art. Allowing yourself a time of quiet while you consciously make a decision to let go of anger and resentment can release you to take the next steps towards living happily in the moment.

9. Visualize Yourself at Peace

If you have ever practiced visualization you may have experienced how powerful this practice can be. If you're not feeling peaceful in forgiving and letting go, try to imagine yourself feeling a release.

10. Replace Your Anger and Fear With Something Else 

Not only is resentment like a poison you prepare for others and drink yourself, but anger and resentment can fill many precious moments that could be spent doing just about anything else. Think about your life; what would you like to do that you haven't had time to do? If you were to replace the time you spend dwelling on past hurts doing one of those things would you be happier?

Repeat these 10 steps as needed.

Next Steps

Even after you work through issues that have caused anger and bitterness in the past, you will inevitably have times when those negative emotions pop up uninvited again, and, being human, there will always be "new" issues that create anger in our lives. In addition to releasing negative feelings and emotions, many people have found that keeping a gratitude journal with cancer can be priceless. It's hard to express gratitude and feel anger simultaneously. And it's not a bad way to find silver linings you might otherwise have overlooked.

A Word From Verywell

Despite the negative impact that anger, fear, and resentment can have on our lives, letting go of these feelings is challenging. When you first begin to uncover and rid yourself of some of these emotions it can feel very artificial. Yet simply taking the time to go through the motions of practicing forgiveness can be extremely helpful. The adage "fake it 'til you make it" may be helpful to keep in mind until you begin to feel the peace that letting go can bring.

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  1. Toussant L, Barry M, Angus D, Bornfriend L, Markman M. Self-forgiveness is associated with reduced psychological distress in cancer patients and unmatched caregivers: Hope and self-blame as mediating mechanisms. Journal of Psychosocial Oncology. 2017. 35(5):544-560. doi:10.1080/07347332.2017.1309615

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