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Coping With Cancer

Many people with cancer may feel a lack of certainty about what the future holds. After a cancer diagnosis, you may feel that your life is less secure than it once was. It is important to ask for support when you are feeling this way.

Talk with your health care team about the resources available to help you.

Causes Of Uncertainty

Both newly diagnosed patients and long-term survivors have common worries.

These may include:

  • Having to put plans on hold
    You may feel like you are unable to look to the future. Making plans is difficult for many practical reasons. For instance, it can be hard to plan a family vacation when you may not know exactly when you will have treatment. You may not be able to commit to a lunch date because you cannot predict how you will be feeling. Some people feel unable to make any plans. One approach that works well for many people with cancer is to remain flexible and accept that plans may change.
  • Fear about cancer treatment and side effects
    You may be worried or scared of the possible side effects of treatment, such as pain, nausea, or fatigue. Or you may fear becoming dependent on others during cancer treatment or missing activities that you enjoy. Learn more about coping with the fear of treatment side effects.
  • The treatment will not work
    No treatment works the same for every person, even those with the same type of cancer. Some treatments are more effective for some people. Other treatments may work but cause side effects. Understanding what your treatment options are today and, in the future, may help you know what to expect next.
  • The treatment will stop working
    Many times, people continue to receive a treatment until it stops working. This is especially true for those with cancer that has spread or those with cancer that is controlled with drugs for a long time. It is scary to think that the drug could stop working, even if you know that there are other treatment options.
  • The cancer will come back
    A cancer recurrence is when the cancer returns after treatment. It is a top fear of many cancer survivors. If you worry about this, you may find yourself paying attention to every potential symptom you have. In turn, this can increase your general level of anxiety. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence.
  • Fear of dying or losing someone you love
    Facing the idea of dying can be difficult. Feeling fear is natural when you think about dying or losing someone you love. It’s normal to struggle with a fear of death. Yet, if these feelings become stronger, talk with your health care team about resources to help you cope.

Learning to manage the uncertainty is an important part of staying healthy.

Dealing with the “what ifs” of cancer

Acknowledging the unknowns of cancer may make you feel anxious, angry, sad, or afraid. You may even have physical symptoms from these feelings. For instance, it may cause sleeping problems or make it harder to focus on work. Learning to manage the uncertainty is an important part of staying healthy.

  • Recognize that there are situations you can control and those you cannot. As hard as it sounds, many people find it helpful to let go of those things that they cannot change and focus on their reaction to events.
  • Talk with your health care team if your feelings of uncertainty are affecting your daily life. They can help you find the resources you need to feel better.
  • Talk with a counselor or social worker at the hospital. They may recommend a support group in your area. A group may help you share with others who are going through a similar cancer experience. There are also support communities online that you can join.
  • Talk with friends and family members. Tell them how you are feeling and how they can help.
  • Learn as much as you can about the cancer and its treatment. Having the right information can help you know what to expect.

A disease such as cancer is often one of the most stressful experiences of a person’s life.

Managing Stress

Coping with cancer can be more challenging with added stress from work, family, or financial concerns. Everyday stress can also make coping with a cancer diagnosis more difficult. Stress has not been shown to cause cancer, but chronic stress may weaken the immune system, causing other health problems and decreasing feelings of well-being.

Tips for Reducing Stress

Stressors are sources of stress. Some stressors are predictable and, therefore, sometimes avoidable. You can often lower the amount of stress in your life by making small changes.

  • Avoid scheduling conflicts
    Use a day planner, your phone, or an online calendar to keep track of appointments and activities. When you schedule activities, allow plenty of time to finish 1 activity before starting the next. Do not schedule too many activities for the same day or week, especially activities you need to prepare for. If managing your schedule is exhausting, ask someone you trust to help review your appointments.
  • Be aware of your limits
    If you do not have the time, energy, or interest, it is okay to politely-decline when people ask you to take on tasks. Do not feel guilty over saying no. A cancer diagnosis is life-changing and focusing on the things that matter most makes good sense. At work, do not volunteer for projects that would make your workload unmanageable. If saying “no” feels difficult, tell the person asking what you can do instead.This could be doing a smaller part of the task or having more time to complete the task.
  • Ask for help
    It is also good sense to ask family, friends, and coworkers for help. People are likely to offer their support, so think about tasks you need help with beforehand. People appreciate being able to help in specific ways. For example, family or friends may be able to help with shopping, meal preparations, pet-sitting, or picking up a child from school.
  • Prioritize your tasks
    Make a list of the things you routinely do, such as work and household chores. Rank these things by importance, considering the things you must do and the things that are most important to you. If you do not have time to do everything, focus on the tasks and activities at the top of your list.
  • Break down tasks into smaller steps
    Sometimes large tasks can be done in smaller steps. This process can make seemingly overwhelming problems easier to handle. For example, instead of spending an afternoon cleaning your entire house, tackle 1 or 2 rooms each day.
  • Concentrate your efforts on things you can control
    A stressor may be something you can’t change or control, even with the best planning. Traffic is one example. People who can remain flexible keep their stress low. Sometimes the only aspect of a problem you can control is how you react to it. If it helps, think of it as saving your energy to spend on things more important to you.
  • Get help with financial problems
    Talk with an oncology social worker or a financial advisor who knows about cancer-related insurance and financial matters. Do not wait to find financial help. Late bills and debt can quickly become overwhelming.

Talk with your doctor before starting an exercise schedule.

Stress Management Strategies

Although you can try to reduce the number of stressors in your life, you cannot completely avoid stress. However, stress management strategies can help you feel more relaxed and less anxious.

The following are tips to help reduce stress:

  • Exercise regularly
    Exercise regularly. Moderate exercise such as a 30-minute walk several times a week can help lower stress.
  • Spend time outside
    If possible, take a walk outside in a park or other natural setting. Sunlight, fresh air, and the sounds of nature can help brighten a person’s day.
  • Schedule social activities
    Make time to socialize with family or friends, as it is a good way to lower stress.
  • Eat well
    Maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough rest will give you more energy to deal with daily stressors. Learn more about nutrition during treatment.
  • Get plenty of sleep
    Life is busy and some people may think that sleep is indulgent. But sleep is essential to help the body stay healthy and heal. Try to get 7 or more hours of sleep each night. Naps during the day can also help. If you are having difficulty sleeping, talk with your health care team about ways to manage sleeping problems.
  • Join a support group
    Support groups offer you the chance to talk about your feelings and fears with others who share and understand your experiences. You can also talk with a trusted friend, a counselor, or a social worker. Learn more about support groups.
  • Schedule daily relaxing time
    Spend time doing an activity you find relaxing, such as reading a book, gardening, or listening to music.
  • Do things you enjoy
    Eat at your favorite restaurant or watch your favorite television show. Laughter reduces stress, so consider seeing a funny movie or reading a humorous book to help cope with stress.
  • Write in a journal
    Writing about the stresses and events in your life provides a private way to express your feelings. Learn more about the power of writing.
  • Learn a new hobby
    Engaging in a new and challenging activity gives you a sense of accomplishment and provides a distraction from daily worries. Examples include taking an art class or playing a musical instrument.

Many people learn and practice relaxation techniques to lower stress

Relaxation Techniques

Many people learn and practice relaxation techniques to lower stress. You can learn most of them in a few sessions with a counselor. Many hospitals and cancer centers also have classes to teach patients relaxation techniques.

Consider doing the following techniques daily or at specific stressful times, such as during a medical procedure:

  • Relaxed or deep breathing
    This involves deep, slow breathing while concentrating on filling the lungs and relaxing muscles.
  • Mental imagery or visualization
    This helps you create peaceful and relaxing images in your mind.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
    This technique involves tightening and then relaxing muscles. Most people start at either the toes or the head and progressively relax all the muscles across the body.
  • Meditation
    With this technique, you can learn to relax your mind and concentrate on an inner sense of calm.
  • Biofeedback
    This technique can teach you to relax and control your body’s response to stress by paying attention to signals from the body.
  • Yoga
    Yoga focuses the mind on breathing and posture to promote relaxation and reduce fatigue.
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