Cancer is a life-threatening illness that is an extremely distressing diagnosis to deal with. Cancer impacts a person’s physical, emotional, and social well-being. A person’s ability to cope with cancer may depend on factors like their adjustment over time, level of hope and optimism, acceptance of their condition, and their ability to pursue activities that bring them joy and happiness.
The Physical, Mental, & Emotional Effects of Cancer
Along with physical effects, cancer impacts someone’s mental health, financial and occupational well-being, social life, and sense of spirituality.1 A person diagnosed with cancer is often surrounded by new fears about health decline, loss of independence, loss of life, and worries about the impact of this disease on their family members.1
Michelle Morand, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Cancer Treatment Options and Management (CTOAM), notes the intense impact a cancer diagnosis can have on someone’s mental health:6
“Cancer affects mental health on 2 significant levels:
- First, the legitimate physiological impacts to your body and your hormones, your ease of movement and chronic pain–any and all can be affected and have a powerful effect on your dopamine levels (the hormone we refer to as the ‘happy hormone’.
- Chronic pain and hormonal changes due to tumor size and location, as well as the effects of treatment, will have an effect on how much dopamine your body produces vs. how much cortisol (the stress hormone) it produces.
This will be experienced in the cancer patient as feeling more anxious, restless, unsettled, sad, depressed or all of the above. It is important that cancer patients are told to expect these effects of their cancer and treatment, so that if they start to feel unusually down or anxious when they begin a certain treatment or are experiencing certain pain, they can understand that this is just one of the crappy side-effects of cancer. It doesn’t make it go away, but it does help to put their experience of stress or depression/flatness into perspective. And give them hope that when the treatment stops, their mood will very likely improve.”
Those dealing with cancer are also financially impacted from medical treatment in addition to ongoing expenses like food, housing costs, heat, and transportation.1 Many people affected by cancer are not able to continue working due to intensive treatment and its effects, particularly if they have cognitive changes that impact their ability to successfully perform their daily work duties.
Other mental and emotional concerns a cancer patient can experience include:1
- Anger that this disease happened to them
- Body image issues as their appearance changes with treatment
- Guilt over the impact of the illness on their family and friends as their condition persists
- Feeling a loss of control over their daily life if their dependence on others increases
- Fear of the unknown regarding how their diagnosis may unfold over time
11 Strategies for Coping With Cancer
Having a diagnosis of cancer, going through treatment, and dealing with the after-effects are very challenging and stressful. Implementing various coping strategies may help in approaching this serious health issue with a strong mindset and outlook.
According to Morand, “if they can remind themselves that they are doing their best, and this is not personal but just one of those crappy situations that life sometimes throws our way, they will be able to focus on the things they can change, like how they practice self-care; the relationships they put time into; and how they speak up for themselves.”
Here are eleven ideas that may be helpful when coping with cancer:2,3,4,5
1. Express & Process Emotions
Research has found that people who expressed their emotions and took the time to process them had a more positive adjustment.5 This expression and processing can take place in professional counseling, or simply venting to a close friend or family member.
2. Maintain Optimism & Hope
Maintaining optimism and hope is essential for keeping one’s emotional well-being stable following a cancer diagnosis.
According to Sharon Cohan, LCSW and Information Specialist at The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, six strategies to maintain optimism include:7
- Building and sustaining meaningful relationships
- Staying positive
- Living in the present moment
- Promoting accomplishments
- Feeling a spiritual connection
- Anticipating survival
3. Be Realistic
While it’s important to maintain hope and optimism, it’s also crucial to be realistic about your prognosis. In cases of advanced cancer, this is particularly relevant as there is much more for an individual to keep in mind such as arranging personal care services to support yourself and minimize caregiver burden on family and friends, creating a power of attorney document for property and personal care as well as a will.
4. Focus on Solvable Problems
Tackling your diagnosis and treatment proactively is a problem solving approach that has been demonstrated to support effective coping in people affected by cancer.5 For example, figuring out how you will get to medical appointments, keeping track of upcoming appointments, bringing a notebook and/or a support person to take notes during meetings and asking questions if you don’t understand something about your diagnosis or prognosis can help you feel more empowered.
5. Engage Your Social Support System
Contacting friends and family during such a difficult time will help you get the support you need while you try to navigate your cancer diagnosis. Receiving support from your social network is one of the most important ways of building resilience and quality of life while dealing with cancer. This is particularly key for people with a poor prognosis as they may be the most in need of emotional and psychological support.
Deciding how much support you need and figuring out with others what kind of support they are comfortable giving (e.g. practical or emotional) is a vital step in figuring out who you can go to for certain needs. Equally important is explaining what you feel you need and don’t need from others. Maintaining a positive relationship with your health care providers, including your oncologist and related specialists, are also valuable for helping you cope during these difficult times.
6. Keep Up With Your Hobbies
Staying involved to whatever extent possible regarding your work and hobbies will contribute towards your sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. This will help you maintain a level of self-efficacy and self-esteem as you will be participating in activities that bring you pleasure, growth, and personal development.
7. Draw Strength From Religious & Spiritual Affiliations
During such a tumultuous time, relying on your religion and/or spirituality (if you engage in certain practices) can bring a sense of comfort and guidance that is unique and unlike any other type of coping strategy. Indeed, discovering a sense of purpose and meaning through adversity is one way that a person can experience growth during such hardship.
8. Peer Support & Group Counselling
Accessing peer support or group counselling is vital for being able to learn from others who have been through the same or a similar journey. Learn what helped them cope, and if there are any ideas or strategies they can offer that might make sense for you. It is also helpful to sometimes just be able to talk to someone who can truly understand what you are going through, the fears you have and the challenges you are dealing with.
9. Set Goals
Setting feasible short and long term goals for things you want to accomplish and activities you want to engage in can help foster a sense of “normalcy” in a difficult time. Having something to look forward to, no matter how small, can be uplifting and encouraging during these tough times.
Even something as simple as planning your daily tasks and needs is also a very pragmatic way of focusing on the present, taking things as they come, and staying in tune with your energy level and symptoms as they fluctuate so you can adjust your approach as needed.
10. Distract Yourself
Sometimes, it helps to just focus on something else entirely that gives you a break from thinking about your condition. This doesn’t mean that you don’t accept your health condition or that you are denying that it happened. Rather, you are simply seeking momentary relief to give your mind some respite before you tackle your next appointment or issue. It helps to participate in social activities and conversations with loved ones that enable you to experience things that take you beyond your diagnosis and remind you of what you enjoy in life.
Watching TV or a movie, reading a book, doing an enjoyable activity with family or friends, watching a funny video clip, and engaging in tasks that give you a sense of meaning, purpose, and reflect your daily routines are all ways to momentarily distract your thoughts and feelings away from your diagnosis. This brief respite can be helpful for one’s emotional well being.
11. Get Help From a Therapist
Getting support from a counselor is also beneficial in that you will have an independent, objective professional who is focused on your well being and needs without any competing biases or needs. Working with someone outside of your social network can enable you to share information about your concerns, fears, and stressors that perhaps you may not want to burden or overwhelm your family and friends with.
When to Get Help From a Mental Health Professional
Accessing mental health support from a therapist becomes important when you find that you are not coping well in your everyday life. Perhaps you may feel depressed or have difficulty maintaining your daily routines with respect to work, family, and social lives. Contact your doctor if you would like a referral to a mental health professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Alternatively, finding a virtual counselor near you by searching an online directory is a good place to start when choosing a therapist. If you have suicidal thoughts, a plan to harm yourself, and/or feel you are at risk of self-harm, please seek help immediately by calling 9-1-1 or going to your nearest emergency room. For non-emergency urgent emotional support, call or text a crisis phone line in your country, province, or state.
What Types of Help Are Available for Dealing With Cancer?
Seeking out counselling to talk through your challenges, worries, and stressors can be very beneficial for supporting your emotional well-being, improving your quality of life, and building resilience. Counselling can be in an individual, couple, family, or group format depending on what type of style you feel best meets your needs at this point in time. Some people may explore multiple approaches at once as well.
Similarly, peer support is also valuable in its own right. Hearing directly what worked and didn’t work well for another person who has the same type and/or stage of cancer can be extremely helpful.1
Meaning therapy is a helpful therapeutic modality that may be useful for cancer patients. The meaning therapy approach involves thinking about one’s true value and worth, maintaining a present and future focused mindset as well as a positive approach, and building a sense of purpose and fulfillment by considering what is going well, what you would like to achieve, and where you are currently at in your journey.2
It also involves considering what your future ideal self would think or how you would tackle a challenge step by step to help you get past your feelings of overwhelm. Similarly, using positive self-statements, and practicing gratitude and mindfulness are all components of this therapeutic approach.2
Cohan shares, “A diagnosis of cancer can be a chance to try to understand the greater purpose or reason behind one’s life. This search for meaning can often lead to a greater understanding of yourself and others and clarify for you what really matters. People report feeling a greater sense of inner peace and satisfaction with life.”
Helping a Loved One Cope With Cancer
There are many ways to help a loved one cope with cancer. It’s critical to be non-judgmental and offer practical ways to help with tasks like grocery shopping, making meals, and transporting them to appointments. Educate yourself about their diagnosis so you understand more about what they are going through and discuss community resources if they are open to it.
Cohan lists six actionable tips for helping a loved one cope with their cancer diagnosis:
- Actively listen, Let your loved one express their feelings, even if those feelings make you uncomfortable. Allow them the opportunity to have the comfort of sharing. Don’t judge, don’t interrupt, and listen with your eyes and body, not only your ears.
- Gather information on your loved one’s disease and resources which may be available such as financial help and support group information.
- Provide concrete help by grocery shopping, paying bills and cleaning the house. Even if they do not ask for help.
- Attend healthcare appointments to provide support, companionship and help to take notes.
- Provide distraction and humor, cancer patients need to have a life outside of cancer appointments and treatments.
- Let them know you care. Say I love you often.
Be sure to engage your loved one in activities and conversations that are completely unrelated to cancer so they can remember that cancer does not define them. Most importantly, offer them as much emotional support as possible so they know you are willing, able, and present for them when they need you.2
On the other hand, it isn’t helpful to treat the person impacted by cancer as an invalid or incapable. It’s crucial to assist them where they say they need help but also encourage them to be independent and to take the lead in areas where they can help themselves, where they have interest and motivation, and where they feel capable of handling certain situations and matters.2
It’s important for caregivers to also ensure they are taking care of themselves. Make sure you are eating and sleeping well, addressing your own mental health needs, drawing on your own social support, and anything else that helps ensure your mental and physical health are stable so you can best support their loved one.
Final Thoughts on Coping With Cancer
Morand poignantly states, “Time is short for all of us, but nothing brings that into sharper focus than a cancer diagnosis. For cancer patients, having realistic expectations of how treatments will affect their mood, energy, and clarity of thought, while ensuring they are truly getting the best possible treatment for the mutations that have caused their cancer, is about the very best anyone can do.”