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A cancer diagnosis sends chills down most people’s spine and triggers much stress. The stress can appear as fear, brain overload, slowness, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, worry about one’s life and loved ones, less interest in life, and occasionally nausea, and vomiting. Some people feel the stress as a hassled feeling of not enough time to get everything done, reliving regrets, and wanting to spend more time with family and friends.
Five Ways to Cope with the Stress of a Cancer Diagnosis
Let cancer become your teacher: Doing battle with cancer adds more strain to an already stressed physique. Although cancer may feel like your worst enemy, enemies usually last a lifetime. Instead, if cancer becomes your teacher, teachers usually leave after we learn the lessons. Thus, let cancer be a teacher that encourages healthy nutrition and priorities.
Setting health goals: Balancing your goals for maximizing survival with your goals for quality of life can help identify the right choices for your situation. First of all, decide on your tolerance for side effects. Some treatments may cause few side effects while others induce many side effects. For example, is two extra months of life sufficiently long if the chemotherapy induces nausea for 2 months? In comparison, the goal of some treatments may be to improve the quality of life. For example, surgery can remove much of the mesothelioma cancer, which allows the patient to breathe more easily even though s/he may not live longer in most cases.
Understanding benefits and risks: Understanding the potential benefits and risks of treatments can help reduce the stress of the unknown. Consider asking physicians the following questions to help find the best treatment or combination of treatments for your situation.
- What are the chances of a cure without recurrence?
- If the chances of a cure are less than 25%, what are the chances that the treatment will improve my quality of life?
- What are the chances that the treatment will extend my life? If so, how many additional months or years can a person with my type of cancer and tumor stage expect to gain?
- Note that physicians can only give you an average because each person responds differently.
- What will the treatment do to my strength, stamina, ability to eat, and ability to taste during the treatment?
- Will these side effects reverse after the treatments are done? If so, how soon?
Discuss important treatment decisions: Discussing the treatment options with your family, caregiver, and physician team helps choose the most appropriate therapies for the type of cancer, stage, and quality of life issues. These treatment decisions can help the cancer patient and families avoid second-guessing themselves later.
Build a support team: The physician team and nurses have brochures and websites that provide more information on your type of cancer, potential treatments, and alternative therapies. Receiving the contact numbers for local support groups and cancer social workers can increase the chances of using the services.
Four Tips for Reducing Stress While Scheduling and Receiving Cancer Treatments
Get help scheduling treatments: Many cancer centers have social workers who help cancer patients deal with their stress. The social workers can provide help in scheduling appointments, obtaining your medications, etc. Consider contacting them to help coordinate your treatments.
Stay organized: A calendar that keeps track of any big upcoming celebrations such as a birthday, holiday, or anniversary can help to fit the treatments around your priorities and avoid disruptions.
Make treatment sessions pass by: Many chemotherapy treatments need to be infused slowly and the treatments may take 1-3 hrs. Reading books from the library or bringing a tablet to watch a movie can take your mind off of the hour-long infusions or the wait for other treatments. Bring a loved one for company and to keep your spirits high. Furthermore, laughter helps ease stress.
Prepare for side effects: It is a good idea to pack a small treatment bag with comfort items to help make treatment side effects easier to deal with. A small pillow, blanket, snacks and entertainment items can take your mind off of the potential negative side effects. Since being cold can also induce stress, a blanket on your lap can help conserve warmth during the infusion.
Building and Increasing Your Support Team
Many cancer centers host monthly meetings that provide social support to cancer patients in a group setting.
Cancer patients also are providing support to each other through online communities through disease specific websites.
The “I can cope” online webpage provides many online classes. The topics range from basic information on cancer and cancer treatments, to nutrition that supports your recovery and suggestions for managing fatigue.
The American Cancer Society provides a network of volunteers that may be able to help drive you to and from cancer treatment centers. Consider searching the Road to Recovery webpage to find local branches near you.
Four of Many Alternative Therapy Options
Massage can help relieve stress and anxiety. Massage therapy may improve sleep, reduce pain and fatigue. However, each individual responds differently. Massage therapists need training for massaging cancer patients as they should modify their techniques to adjust for the cancer patients’ previous treatments (chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, medications).
Deep breathing can be relaxing, especially outside in clean air. Most cancers can thrive with less oxygen than normal cells. For example, oxygen reduces the aggressiveness of mesothelioma. In addition, slow deep breathing helps calm the mind, body, and spirits.
Exercise helps relieve tension and stress. Going for short walks in a local park or sitting on a park bench can help lift your mood with its smells, bird chirps, scurrying chipmunks, colorful flowers, and fresh air.
Most people forget their troubles when they are helping others. Helping others, such as advocating for research on your disease, can spark new friendships and brighten up each day.
Goudarzi, H. et al. Hypoxia affects in vitro growth of newly established cell lines from patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma. Biomed Res 34, 13-21 (2013).