Getting diagnosed with cancer is a unique experience for every person. It can mean many different things depending on the type of cancer, the stage, the treatment options and the overall health of the person. Regardless of the type of cancer, most people experience a whirlwind of emotions during the time of diagnosis. Uncertainty and loss of control are two common feelings. Uncertainty is especially intense in the work-up phase when you are not sure what kind of cancer you have, what your options are for treatment or who is going to take care of you during treatment. Loss of control may be an issue when you feel your body is broken, tumors may be growing, cells may be multiplying, and you wonder about dying. You may feel loss of control over your energy since you are not able to do activities or work you enjoy. The time needed for appointments may make you may feel as if the medical system has taken control of your entire schedule.
If you are asking yourself the question, “How will I cope?” you are actually in a good starting place. Actively thinking about how to manage emotions such as uncertainty and loss of control is a sign that you will be able to get through your cancer experience.
There are two key questions to ponder as you work through the issue of how to cope during cancer. How have I coped before? And, what do I like?
How have I coped before? When faced with difficult situations in the past, everything from a new school or a new home to a relationship breakup or a job loss, what have I done to get by? What thoughts or behaviors helped me manage my emotions? There are definitely many unhelpful coping strategies during stressful life events, such as becoming isolated, sleeping too much or using more alcohol. Unhelpful coping strategies should be noted and avoided. More helpful coping strategies include being with people who really care about your wellbeing, spending time outdoors, listening to music, breathing deeply and slowly, making lists and schedules and allowing other people to help you with chores.
What do I like? Not just what flavor of ice cream or what kind of movie, but what makes you feel joyful? What do you care about, what do you want to be good at? Who in your life matters to you? Who do you like to be around? Cancer can make your own mortality prominent in your mind on a day-to-day basis. The question, “what do I like?” is essential to consider when you recognize time is limited. Thinking about what matters to you, even writing those things down, encourages you to then take steps to include them in your life. Make a list with specifics. There may be simple pleasures you can enjoy during cancer treatment, and others that will have to wait until after treatment, but plan them, talk about them, work towards getting there. Having both short and long term goals can help you cope with cancer.
Some people are not able to answer these two questions because clinical depression gets in the way of seeing anything pleasant or joyful, or severe anxiety short-circuits the ability to think logically. Drugs and alcohol interfere with the ability to experience pleasure in a meaningful way. Emotional and behavior disturbances can be treated, both with medication and with talk therapy. A comprehensive cancer center offers psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers willing and interested in helping you get your mind in a healthy place to answer the two important questions. Taking care of your brain is critical for overall health.
You can cope. Answering the first question shows that you’ve coped with hard things before. Answering the second question gives you motivation to get through treatment for cancer. There may be challenges, really tough ones, but you can absolutely conquer these challenges. How do I know? I witness people surviving and thriving everyday at Winship.
Wishing you well,
About Dr. Baer
Wendy Baer, MD is the Medical Director of Psychiatric Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. In her work at Winship, Dr. Baer helps patients and their families deal with the stress of receiving a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. As a psychiatrist, she has expertise in treating clinical depression and anxiety both with medications and psychotherapy to help people manage emotions, behaviors and relationships. The fundamental goal of Dr. Baer’s practice is to promote wellness and maximize patients’ quality of life as much as possible. She believes strongly in the team approach to patient care and collaborates regularly with patients’ doctors, nurses and social workers.