Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis

Jody Underwood, MD, FACLP, DFAPA
Coping with a cancer diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis is a life changing event. While living with cancer can contribute to personal growth and meaning in one’s life, the diagnosis can cause emotional distress.

Although every person’s experience is unique, emotions ranging from anger, sadness, anxiety, fear, or hope may arise at any point during the cancer journey. It’s understandable to react in any or all of these ways to an illness. Attention to your emotional distress is important as it can impact every area of your life.

According to the American Cancer Society, surveys show that as many as four in 10 people with cancer experience significant levels of distress. Up to 25 percent of people diagnosed with cancer report significant symptoms of anxiety or depression. When these symptoms are well controlled, people report a better quality of life and participate more actively in their care.

Things to remember

Here are some suggestions the psychiatrists and social workers of the Lifespan Cancer Institute have found to be helpful for people experiencing a cancer diagnosis.

  • Take a moment to recognize your thoughts and emotions. You may be feeling overwhelmed at different times in your journey. You are likely to experience many different emotions, and this is a normal response to your cancer diagnosis.
  • Seek help for yourself. Reach out to family and friends for support. Contact your health care team for support offered at your treatment center. These can include counseling, support groups, peer to peer support and psychiatric care.
  • It is okay for you to decline help that is not helpful. Social interactions can drain you. Your energy needs to go to your health. Friends and loved ones will want to offer assistance, but may need your guidance in what may be of help to you. Have a list ready for those who say, “let me know if there is anything I can do.” Give people specific tasks, such as making dinner once a week or grocery shopping.

Ways to cope

Attending to and acknowledging one’s emotional distress is important for mental and physical health and well-being. There are some coping strategies, both new and “tried and true,” that can help ease emotional distress. Have you thought of trying any of the following?

  • Get moving. Exercise can have important benefits during cancer treatment including improving mood and fatigue. Check with your health care team to find out which type of exercise is appropriate. A daily walk with friends can provide social support and health benefits.
  • Be mindful. Mindfulness, meditation and relaxation activities can relieve stress and anxiety. Try a yoga or tai chi class. Sign up for a mindfulness/meditation workshop. Try a mindfulness/relaxation app. A few well-known apps are Headspace, Calm and 10% Happier.
  • Find a hobby. Start a journal, blog or scrapbook. Work on a puzzle. Take up cooking.
  • Discover what makes you happy. Make a list of things that help you feel cared for…food, social visits, relaxation… think about things that make you love your life.
  • Stay in touch with your emotions. It’s important to monitor your emotions, especially those that may be uncomfortable or interfere with your daily functioning. Those might include continued sadness, anxiety, inability to feel pleasure or have fun, trouble sleeping and irritability/frustration. Talk with your health care team regarding your emotions especially if troubling emotions do not lessen as you learn more about your cancer diagnosis and treatment plan. Receiving treatment for anxiety or depression can help improve your quality of life and relationships with loved ones.
  • Get more information.  Knowledge is power. There are many reputable online resources for all types of cancer. Your health care team can help suggest well-established websites for resources and information. Such sites include:
    • Cancer.net - a site with doctor-approved patient information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
    • Cancer.org - the official website of the American Cancer Society.
    • Cancercare.org  - the website of CancerCare, an organization dedicated to providing free services and information to help people facing the challenges of cancer

Lastly, remember this is a time to focus on your own health and well-being. Learn more about the Lifespan Cancer Institute and our support services.

Contributing to this article were Susan Garland, LICSW, Elaine McDonald, LICSW, Melissa Conroy, LICSW, Alice Deighan, LCS, and Kathy Higginbotham, LICSW, clinical social workers from the Lifespan Cancer Institute, who have specialized training on the impact of cancer on everyday life, and counsel cancer patients and their families.

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