Ways to cope with cancer

The natural ability to cope with the stress of cancer will differ from person to person.

  1. How to survive cancer emotionally
  2. Coping strategies for cancer patients
  3. Taking time to emotionally process a cancer diagnosis
  4. What to do following a cancer diagnosis
  5. How can I accept cancer?
  6. Being resilient when facing cancer
  7. Are there any positive aspects to having cancer?
  8. Finding hope during cancer

How to survive cancer emotionally

Every patient will cope in different ways as they adjust psychologically and mentally to the stress of having cancer, with varying levels of success which depend on many factors relating to your personal outlook, make up, support surrounding you and your baseline mental wellbeing.1

Typical coping strategies people with cancer have been found to display can be categorised into two distinct responses; emotion-focused and problem‐focused.

Emotional coping strategies include;

  • denial
  • hope
  • active and fatalistic acceptance
  • distraction
  • avoidance
  • positive reinterpretation of the situation.2

Problem-focused reactions include;

  • seeking support
  • passing on daily tasks to family and friends,
  • researching best treatment options
  • active stress management
  • engaging with your medical team
  • following a specific wellness plan.

Initially, you will have a gut reaction to how you feel that you will cope with cancer, that will be based on your previous life experiences. Your perception of how strong a person you are, how resilient you have been in the face of past adversities and your fundamental personality traits3 will all shape how you will cope with cancer.

This inner opinion of how able you will be to face this illness and bounce back from any setbacks will define your attitude and ultimately how you act in reaction to being challenged.

Strategies to help you cope with cancer

Finding a way to adequately cope is essential in maintaining your emotional and physical wellbeing.4 How successful you are in being able to cope with cancer will have a direct impact upon the quality of life you live with cancer and the life you will have beyond into survivorship.

The development of your ability to cope with cancer and manage your stress response is recognised by the scientific community as an important part of the holistic management of your disease and it is one element of your comprehensive recovery plan which you have most influence over.5

If you are able to successfully handle your emotional response to having cancer, it will be at least one element of your comprehensive recovery plan which you have most influence over.5

Your individual coping style will be found somewhere along on a sliding scale of these generalised responses; at one end patients react with a fighting spirit and a positive, can-do attitude which can include denial and avoidance as coping mechanisms.

Choose your response to cancer

At the other extreme, a person will respond with a rigid, negative mindset, with a destructive inner voice which sees them catastrophizing and awfulizing at every turn. They are full of helplessness and hopelessness whilst typically overtaken by anxious preoccupation and depressive symptoms.6

There are, however, certain ways that you can find some influence and gain what control you can over your current life situation, thereby avoiding an adjustment disorder and maintaining your wellbeing in the face of trauma.

The key to being able to come to terms with all that you are going through and cope with cancer is found by;

  • recognising the weight of trauma
  • accepting what has happened
  • re-framing this whole experience as a challenge
  • re-directing negativity
  • adjusting to life as it is now.

Being able to understand more about your cancer and learn more about your treatment plan, the side-effects you face can also help you ‘bring order out of chaos’.7

Finding purpose and meaning in your life even when faced with a desperate prognosis will also help you cope with cancer. This is still possible at any point, even if your world has shrunk and it means that the small things in life become the big things.

Taking time to emotionally process a cancer diagnosis

Every cancer journey is unique but following any cancer diagnosis there will be a period of adjustment as your horizon changes.

Your reaction and recovery from this shock can be complex. What you initially think and feel, can and most probably will change over time as you process all the aspects, developments and implications of the illness and learn how best to cope with cancer.

There is not one way to be, some days will pass as you will hit long periods when you are stuck in a rut of negative thoughts, of crying in disbelief or in fits of blame and anger.

Whilst at other times you will feel more energised than others when you experience runs of productivity. This is when you make positive inroads into getting through this crunch time such as; arranging a course of reflexology treatments, starting counselling or making a list of questions for your oncologist.

These small steps forward towards healing and long-term survival are cumulative and the more active you are in getting well, the more personal responsibility you take for your own health, the better your life with cancer will be.

Mentally, there can be a delay in how quickly you as the patient or caregiver will be able to process the entirety of cancer, especially if the diagnosis has been unexpected, as is often the case. You will feel as if you are playing catch up in your head as you adjust while the cancer circus sets up before your eyes.

Diagnostic testing, treatment plans, work arrangements all seem to happen as your support network rallies around you and you are left wishing you could just pause time in order to get a grip on the situation. It is therefore essential to give yourself the space and time alone to think things through.

With time, your mind will be able to catch up with what has happened, and you will be able to cope with cancer better as a result.

What to do following a cancer diagnosis

Be good to yourself and more importantly be kind to yourself. The prospect of what is to come and what must be endured over the foreseeable future is enough to take a lot out of anyone. So, you have to make the road ahead as easy and as nice as you possibly can.

Be good to yourself through cancer

Even though all you can see ahead of you is a diary full of hospital appointments, you can inject some life into the situation by arranging enjoyable outings or family time around your treatment regimen. By going out for lunch on a day off or schedule a walk with a friend near the hospital after an appointment, you will find that you can cope with cancer better in that moment.

Give yourself small milestones to celebrate, for example the end of a cycle of chemotherapy or an encouraging scan. Plan a nice day out, a holiday or a treat with the family for when there is a lull in the treatment cycle or side effects. Fill your diary with positive activities and good times involving meeting people, doing fun things that make you happy and give meaning to your life.

Get out of the house into nature, breathe the fresh air, consciously live right now even if every step is tough. Find a friend who is willing to try a complementary treatment with you and have a day out enjoying a reflexology session, a yoga class or even do a mindfulness course together.

Exercising or joining a class with someone close to you can create a sense of community spirit and result in feelings of positivity which are not experienced when you do these activities on your own. Cook healthy meals together, enjoy an evening listening to music or just chatting about anything but cancer.

An idea is to document your journey in a diary or on social media so that with hindsight, you will have the opportunity to be able to look back upon difficult times and gain strength from knowing that you got through them.

All these suggestions will nourish your soul, make your life better in the moment and ease your suffering by enhancing your quality of life. By making your life better right now you will be able to cope better with cancer.

At times you will need to actively seek to pull yourself out of the downward spiral resulting from the negative situation and tumbling into a pit of self-destruction. This can be easier said than done in the face of tough times, but you have to find from deep within your true grit and a dogged determination that this will not break you. The truth is that we all have an inner strength far sturdier than we know until it is tested.

It is important to break everything down into more manageable chunks, take one step at a time and overcome one hurdle at a time. Try not to invent more stress by putting obstacles in your way and mentally try to free yourself from worrying about what hasn’t happened as much as possible because the reality of what is currently happening is probably enough.

In order to claw your way out of the negative situation have goals, a to-do list and a holistic approach to your wellness, focusing upon all aspects of your recovery. Find reasons to live, start doing activities which give you joy and don’t put life off even if the scale of what is achievable right now is smaller.

Investigate your beliefs and either connect or reconnect spiritually if this feels important to you. Make links with the cancer community which will build your knowledge, confidence and hope.

By being strong, getting the best treatment possible, managing your stress and actively making positive lifestyle changes, you will be giving yourself the best fighting chance of recovering.

Take your medications as directed, make lists of questions for your oncologist, research your future treatment options and make sure that side effects are managed so that any problems are minimised.

There are not many second chances with cancer, and you don’t want to be left with only regrets. No one is going to change your life for you, you have to take control now of all that you can, even if that is all that you have.

How can I accept cancer?

When what you expect from life dramatically changes, when your future plans are dashed the natural emotional reaction is of deep disappointment, pain and distress.8

Accepting cancer

It is widely recognised that achieving the ability to accept and tolerate an extremely challenging situation is the key to unlocking not only your mind from being enslaved by negativity, but also your body’s ability to heal.9

Discovering acceptance of the situation you find yourself in is the only way to attract peace and serenity into your headspace.10 Opposed to a rigid, fixed-mindset way of reacting, acceptance provides a flexible way of dealing with the trauma of the situation and cope with cancer better.

Acceptance allows your rational brain the space and time to catch up and process the shock, in an attempt to make sense of what has happened.11 It also provides you with the coping mechanism to be able to deal with all that is out of your control.12

It may make for uncomfortable reading, but resisting, halting the flow of life and trying to swim upstream only serves ultimately, to bring upon yourself unnecessary pain and suffering.

Having cancer is awful and not an experience anyone would wish for. However, recognising the natural and normal ebb and flow of life along with appreciating that for everyone there will be good times and bad, are the first steps towards achieving acceptance.

By taking it all as it comes in life, you can achieve a new perspective on cancer and thereby transform your attitude towards your diagnosis.

Learning to accept your diagnosis and prognosis may take time and it will take a huge effort to emerge from the initial comfort blanket of shock and denial. As a result, you will be able to tap into the serenity and poise13 you sometimes see others displaying in the face of adversity and wonder how they do it.

By going with life instead of against it, it can open you up to the wonderful freedom of being able to accept any outcome and be at peace with life’s challenges. Acceptance can also empower you with immunity against feelings of fear, loss, anxiety, sadness, helplessness and depression which will ease your journey along this path.

No one will escape tough times in life and there will be pain and adversity for all to face,14 it is futile to compare and there is no point in wondering; why me?

Accepting your fate, what is happening to you right now, does not mean that you should do nothing.15 Passive acceptance or resignation is not what is required when facing cancer.

A realistic and rational acknowledgement of your type, stage and prognosis will help you willingly to actively make timely, positive decisions regarding your treatment plan and lifestyle choices. All in the hope of achieving the most positive outcomes, obviously life expectancy, but also regarding how your side effects will affect your quality of life.

Acceptance frees you to be able to change what you can in the present and live with what you can’t, an ability which is a central element of perceived personal control.16

It also enables you to look hopefully towards the future and not be dogged by what has happened in the past. The opportunity and impetus to move on with your life, even if it has changed dramatically, will be afforded to you, if you choose to accept.

Being resilient when facing cancer

There are many ways to describe the term ‘resilience’; the ability to bounce back, hardiness, stoicism, fortitude. It is a coping strategy for protecting your mental health from psychological distress17when faced with periods of extreme stress and challenge. How successful you are at positively adapting and surviving in the thick of adversity defines how resilient you are as a person.

Resilience during cancer

Quite possibly, you will not know how you will react under the intense pressure cancer can bring to your life, as you may never have experienced such a prolonged period of multi-faceted hardship.

This illness can evolve into a test of endurance and the level of resilience you are able to demonstrate throughout will be of an entirely individual response. This innate ability to cope differs due to the varying expectations of life we all have because of the way we have been brought up and how we view the world based upon our previous life experiences.18

The positive take is that most people with cancer will be resilient enough to get through their illness relatively unscathed, even if this resilience is tested and at times life is extremely tough. The definition of being successfully resilient is when patients do not develop the mental health concerns of depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety.19

Resilience, however, is not a passive survival mechanism; it is a way of coping which is driven by your actions in reaction to a trauma. A resilient person with cancer will draw on many aspects of support which all will serve to help protect against the many challenges that are faced.

Internally they will seek to develop;

  • a determined personality
  • a positive outlook
  • a flexible approach
  • the ability to self-regulate their emotional responses
  • an inner confidence
  • a self-reliance.

Outwardly, the patient who can successfully stand tall through the worst of any storm will rely upon their support groups, for example their;

  • family
  • friends
  • culture20
  • religion
  • medical team
  • cancer charities and communities.

A resilient person will also be keen to re-frame cancer as a challenge21. They are able to cope with cancer by seeing cancer as the chance to grow and change in ways they never had the opportunity before. They are prepared to dig deep, fight hard, decide early on a successful outcome, focus upon their recovery plan and intensely direct all their energies upon getting their lives back to zero.

Resilience

Are there any positive aspects to having cancer?

A cancer diagnosis stops you in your tracks and clouds the future, but by doing so, it brings into clear focus the present moment. Although initially it is hard to see past all the loss and suffering, the opportunity in illness can exist, even if hearing this can be a bitter pill to swallow.

The unexpected positive of being diagnosed with cancer is that this can in fact be an ideal time for physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual growth.22

Perhaps uniquely, a cancer diagnosis gives you the perfect excuse to escape the daily grind of your job, your social life and your family commitments and to slow down.23 It is the chance to take time out to cope with cancer, to step back and reflect upon your life without justification or judgement.

Normally life runs at such a pace that you hardly have a chance to take sufficient notice of what really matters. You now have the opportunity to really think about what is significant to you in life.

A cancer diagnosis brings into sharp focus any regrets we may have and the time to right any wrongs. It gives the opportunity to discover your true self and will strengthen your emotional intelligence as you develop a greater awareness of how you react emotionally to trauma.

Most will be permitted the space and time to think about what is important to you and what you want from life. Hopefully you will also be given the time to act in recovery to change your life in the way that you want to in the future.

Whilst trying to make sense from what has happened many patients become open to the possibility of a deeper spiritual awakening or religious connection. You will find that in general you experience greater appreciation and gratitude for life and for everything and everyone around you.

Many will develop an increased empathy and compassion for the struggles other people must face and a deeper understanding of life. Most people with cancer will also find that relationships and friendships become deeper and strengthen exponentially, reaching new realms of love and mutual acceptance in the face of adversity.

Finding hope during cancer

Hope is important. Hope is the protective psychological trait24 that fosters mental wellbeing and is the tool which uses optimism as a strategy to improve the quality of all aspects of your life.

In fact, your belief in a positive outcome and your hope for the future may be the difference between giving up and doing everything in your power to improve your health, thereby your giving yourself the best possible chances of survival.

This is because hope gives you the energy to keep active, stay engaged in the fight for more life and be actively involved in your recovery plan, able to cope with cancer.25 When you are optimistic about living beyond cancer you are more likely to not only create goals and be proactive in researching the best treatment plan, but you are also more motivated to stick to any changes in your lifestyle which will promote wellbeing.

If you do fall into the rut of a pessimistic outlook, you will leave yourself exposed to the negative and destructive emotional reactions such as resentment, blame, self-pity, denial, anger and avoidance.26 Hope gives you the will to live, whilst being hopeless takes that resilience away.27

A positive outlook is beneficial28 for anyone having to cope with cancer, but for those in a situation with little hope, having hope despite the statistics can temper the mental impact and resulting physical toll hopelessness will bring.29 Research part-funded by Marie Curie Cancer Care confirms the benefits of remaining hopeful at every stage and points out that is still achievable even for those with advanced cancer.30

The ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel is crucial to being able to put one foot in front of another and be able to cope with cancer.

The art or skill to being hopeful depends upon your inner explanatory style; how able you are to re-frame the situation as a temporary state which has specific, external causes that can be turned around.31

With a terminal cancer diagnosis, the parameters may have changed, and you may be now hopeful for different things.

However, the benefits of living hopefully will be the same; improved quality of the life you have left, which truthfully, is an unknown quantity for anyone.

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Recommend to others facing cancer, on support forums, social media, in person or by email. Thank you.

Quality of life

References

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  30. Harrop et al., E., 2017. Managing, making sense of and finding meaning in advanced illness: a qualitative exploration of the coping and wellbeing experiences of patients with lung cancer. Sociology of Health & Illness, [Online]. Volume 39, Issue 8, 1448-1464. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-9566.12601 [Accessed 14 December 2018].
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