The Big “C.” How Can You Best Cope with a Cancer Diagnosis?

By Nicole Dorsey, MS. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Unlike many profound life events — graduating college, for example, or getting married — no one anticipates a cancer diagnosis.

And yet, nearly half of all American men and more than one-third of American women can expect to be told they have cancer sometime in their lives, says Niki Barr, Ph.D., a psychotherapist at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders in Fort Worth, Texas.

If you hear those fateful words, you may start front-loading your schedule with doctor’s appointments, medical procedures and multiple pharmacy visits, instantly creating a checklist of things to do to keep you busy and feeling more in control. However, acknowledging the emotional implications and effects of the diagnosis is almost as important.

Physicians and psychologists now recognize that healing improves when both the physical and emotional needs of the patient are met, says Barr, who consults with medical doctors, extended families and caregivers about emotionally coping with a cancer scare.

“Modern medicine now offers many tools for detecting cancers early and treating them successfully, but learning you have cancer remains one of life’s most disturbing and stressful experiences,” she adds. Fully understanding the psychological responses and emotional needs that accompany a cancer diagnosis can go a long way to healing a patient and his or her family.

Tending to your emotional well-being

Upon hearing their preliminary diagnosis, many people may feel real grief, absolute terror and even total denial until the truth sinks in. “These are all normal and emotionally healthy responses, but it’s all too easy to spiral out of control with fear in the beginning,” says Barr. Fortunately, our experts offer tips for managing anxiety if you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer.

Curb anxious thoughts. Start by writing your thoughts down on note cards or in a journal. Identify the first one that’s leading you to feel uneasy, then move onto the next fear and write it down. (For example, “I’m afraid of my hair falling out.”)

When you’ve identified all of your anxious thoughts, go back to the first one and write something new on the card that will help ease your stress; it should be a thought that’s confident and empowering. For example, if you’re afraid of your hair falling out, a positive overlying thought may be: “I need a new hairstyle anyway, and I can’t wait until my hair grows out … maybe I’ll add highlights.” When you’re feeling nervous, read only the more positive strategies, says Barr.

Erase internal dialog. Zap all those “What if?” questions such as, “What if the cancer has spread?” or “What if the treatment doesn’t work?” One terrifying question tends to lead to another and often escalates into full-fledged anxiety. The next time you or your loved one starts asking, “What if?” substitute the upsetting queries with this one: “Is this thought helping me or hurting me?” or even, “Is this thought moving me forward or backward?” Practice eliminating all the thoughts that are holding you back.

Get grounded. Interrupt momentary apprehension by focusing on details around you. “Look at the color of the walls in the room you’re in; look at the person you’re talking to, the clothes [he or she is] wearing,” Barr suggests. Becoming very present and hyper-focused on external details helps soothe sudden anxious thoughts.

Absorb colors, smells, people and each new sound around you. Build it up very clearly in your mind as a pure distraction tool the next time you’re waiting uneasily for a medical procedure or any other time you crave diversions.

Meditate to music. Research shows that 15 to 30 minutes of both guided imagery and soothing tunes can alleviate deep-seated feelings of stress about a cancer diagnosis. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America reviewed 30 clinical cancer trials that analyzed more than 1,890 cancer patients and found that music therapy interventions have a beneficial effect on anxiety, pain, mood, quality of life, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure.

The CTCA also offers many classes and therapies to help caregivers and patients relax, reduce stress and improve their quality of life as part of an extensive mind-body medicine program. Many centers provide calming background music during healing Reiki therapy and other therapies, and music lending is offered in all patient resources areas.

What are your next steps?

You have cancer: Now what? Learning how to clear your mind and focus on positive thoughts is a huge step in the right direction. Here are other soul-soothing strategies:

Purchase a loose-leaf binder and start journaling. Research in the Journal of Clinical Oncology showed that expressing your innermost feelings can reduce stress, and promote a range of other emotional and social benefits. Researchers aren’t sure why putting thoughts down on paper is effective, but it allows both patients and caregivers to process complex emotions and help them chart a way forward.

Exercise for 2.5 hours per week to combat symptoms of depression and fatigue. Among the nation’s millions of cancer survivors, there are hints — although not yet proof — that active exercisers may lower their risk of recurrence. The American College of Sports Medicine convened a medical panel of cancer specialists to evaluate exercise evidence, and issued guidelines suggesting that cancer patients and survivors aim for the same amount of exercise as recommended for the average adult, about 30 minutes most days of the week to build up a sweat and perform an enjoyable activity or activities.

According to these studies, when patients and their family caregivers exercised together, all partners were more likely to stick with the fitness regimen, boost their physical stamina and ease the emotional strain that cancer places on the relationship.

Tap a social support system. Finally, connecting with others who've been through the emotional diagnosis already can be a source of comfort and support. Learn more about online communities to investigate local chapters and support groups. The American Cancer Society also suggests attending one-on-one professional therapy or its “I Can Cope” online support groups to learn more.

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