The Big Ordeal: Understanding and Managing the Psychological Turmoil of Cancer

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Cancer isn’t just a medical diagnosis. It’s uncertainty. It’s isolation. It consumes your brain. No matter what you’re doing, it’s always a lingering thought. You’ll try to be in the present, but everything you do will have you wondering if that will be the last time. And then there are the moments you have to face reality—appointments with specialists, treatments, and all of the effects that come along with them, like fatigue, crushing anxiety, and hormonal issues. Messages from friends and family only give so much comfort, and doctors are focused more on treating your body than providing ways to manage your mind and spirit. There has been nothing to prepare you for this emotional rollercoaster or what’s really driving your fear—until now.

The Big Ordeal: Understanding and Managing the Psychological Turmoil of Cancer (River Grove Books, February 23, 2021)—written by cancer survivor and former Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Montefiore Medical Center, Cynthia Hayes, in collaboration with a psychologist and two oncologists—offers a compilation of relatable stories and medical expertise, providing those impacted by cancer with a much needed roadmap as to what they can expect through their journey ahead and how to cope. Based on interviews with over 100 patients, caregivers, oncologists, neuroscientists, and other experts, and endorsed by doctors at leading institutions, The Big Ordeal is an accessible resource for the 14 million families around the world dealing with cancer each year, and the go-to book for those who seek to advocate for themselves.

“Cancer patients undergo not only a physical experience, but also an emotional transformation that begins immediately as you walk out of your doctor’s office with a cancer diagnosis and nothing more than a specialist’s phone number in your hands,” says Hayes. “You need to hear from others who have gone before you to validate your emotions, learn strategies to deal with those emotions, and gain the strength you need to get on with your life.”

Adding much-needed insight into the cancer conversation, The Big Ordeal points out that there are so many physiological changes that are rarely discussed and yet are drivers of emotional turmoil – such as the release of hormones, cytokines, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals – that happen automatically when your body detects cancer, starts to fight it, undergoes surgery, chemo, radiation, immunotherapy, and other treatments. Because we are all different, we can’t anticipate exactly how any particular patient is going to feel, but there are some predictable patterns, including loss of sense of self and challenges to intimate relationships.

Each chapter of The Big Ordeal covers a particular phase in the process, from diagnosis through treatment and recovery, or recurrence and progression. Insight from those newly diagnosed, in treatment, recovering or facing their final days, present real-life situations and raw emotions, as well as advice on things they wish they had known going into the disease, and lessons they learned the hard way. It’s the book that holds your hand.

While serving as a reminder about the emotional side of the cancer experience for medical professionals in hospitals, cancer care centers, and support organizations, as well as providers of complementary medicine, such as massage therapy and acupuncture, The Big Ordeal is written as an accessible resource for patients and their loving caregivers.

The Big Ordeal will help you:

  • Learn about the typical sequence of emotions you can expect, from diagnosis through treatment and beyond
  • Discover how other patients have experienced cancer and the emotions they share
  • Understand the science behind the emotions, and how cancer and its treatment contribute to how you feel
  • Gain insight into coping styles, exercise benefits, complementary medicine and other ways to help you build resilience
  • Gather advice from those who have been there

“There is a social stigma against mental health that makes it difficult for cancer patients to acknowledge their feelings and raise the need to support,” adds Hayes. “Recognizing that there are physiological changes happening helps legitimize the emotions we all feel. Knowing how others have dealt with their cancer emotions provides ideas to new patients – and their loving caregivers – on how to cope.”

Fifty percent of net proceeds from The Big Ordeal will be donated to The Women, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating inequities in health care among women affected with gynecological cancer through research, education, awareness, and advocacy.