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Your Mental Health: Coping After a Cancer Diagnosis

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 11, 2023

Few words induce more terror than the phrase, “You have cancer.” Immediately after the diagnosis, life becomes a pinhole camera. Most of the world becomes blurry and unfocused while the disease itself is front and center. It’s normal to feel negative. Yet as you consider treatment options and a plan for your cancer care, it’s important to strategize about the other aspects of your life. The way you cope following a cancer diagnosis won’t just affect your mental health but could also affect the success of your treatment. Here’s what you should know about coping after a cancer diagnosis.


Improving Odds


Although our body’s trillions of cells divide, do their jobs, and die every day without incident, occasionally a genetically mutated cell survives or even multiplies. Sometimes these genetically flawed cells are cancerous and if they spread, they can jeopardize your health. Caught early, many cancers are highly treatable. Yet for most people, learning they have cancer is deeply unsettling, regardless of the type. It’s important to recognize that survival rates continue to improve. If you are a cancer patient today, you have a better chance of a positive outcome than you would have had 20 or even 10 years ago. In fact the death rate from cancer declined by nearly one-third from 1991 to 2017. Those numbers continue to improve. So when you’re advised to be realistic, it’s important to note that in many cases optimism is realistic.


Still, the days and weeks following your diagnosis can be overwhelming. That’s why it’s a good idea to bring along a friend or family member to your appointments. It can be hard to remember everything the doctor says and having a second set of ears really helps. You may also want to write down any questions you have beforehand, so you don’t forget them.


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What is Cancer?

What is Cancer?

People have different ways of dealing with medical concerns. You may prefer to get as much information as possible and discuss possible treatments with your doctor. If you fit this category, make sure you are using reliable sources. Peer-reviewed medical studies in reputable journals like CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, and The Lancet Oncology, along with publications like Journal of the American Medical Association are a good resource. Although they are written with doctors in mind, the conclusions and results sections on recent studies can be enlightening. Also helpful are sites run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with ones from major healthcare facilities. You can do more harm than good accessing unproven remedies because of something you read on Facebook or heard on afternoon TV. In fact, it can even interfere with your treatment which is why your doctor needs to be informed of anything you are taking or considering taking –– including supplements and over-the-counter medications.


Of course some people would prefer more general information and allow the doctors to take charge of their care. That’s fine as well. Just make sure you discuss your preferences with your oncologist. 


Coping With Cancer


The best time to strategize is before treatment begins. Start organizing your life with an idea of how much time the treatment will take and how it will alter your routine. Now is the time to reach out to friends or family. You may need a ride to appointments or help maintaining your household. Your work and finances will likely be affected; it’s important to prepare yourself for disruptions. Don’t expect to know the future. Preparing can calm anxiety and improve your sense of control but that doesn’t mean the unexpected won’t occur.


It’s important to accept that your emotions will be changing rapidly. Coping with cancer can be seen as coping with losses. You may lose your health, however temporarily, along with your appearance, independence, and even some relationships. Anger is a normal response; so is self blame, where you wonder what you could have done to prevent getting cancer. While overall there are many things that can reduce your chances of getting cancer, individuals get cancer despite doing everything “right.” Triathletes get cancer. So do young children.


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Cancer - Diagnosis in Young and Healthy People

Cancer - Diagnosis in Young and Healthy People

While some patients prefer to discuss their disease with friends and family members, it’s okay if you don’t want to. Writer-director Nora Ephron famously kept her leukemia a secret from even her closest friends including one who recalled soon after she died that she’d “told him she was fighting a health issue, that it was a blood thing, and that he wasn’t allowed to ask about it. She warned him, ‘We never had this conversation.’” Recently, comedian Norm Macdonald also kept his battle against cancer a secret from most. Some don’t want to deal with questions from well-meaning acquaintances; others don’t want people to treat them differently. 


However, even if you don’t discuss your condition with the people in your life, it’s important to discuss it with someone. You may want to join a support group or speak with a therapist. Recently, online sessions with a licensed psychotherapist have been shown to improve patients overall mental health––which can directly affect physical health. Keeping your condition a total secret may also increase your anxiety––which can negatively affect your treatment. Studies have shown that when cancer patients take part in therapy, their survival rates improve.


It’s important to accept that there will be days when you don’t feel your best. But when you feel decent enough, light exercise can help both your mental and physical health. So will eating vegetables and fruit and reducing your intake of processed food—which doesn’t mean you can’t binge on ice cream occasionally. 


Of course, not every cancer patient chooses aggressive treatment. Some cancers aren’t treatable while other treatments only delay rather than eliminate a fatal outcome. If your cancer is terminal, there are still steps to take. It can help to make preparations including a will and arrangements for your memorial. You’ll want to discuss the situation with those who are closest to you. Palliative care that emphasizes reducing the discomfort from cancer symptoms may also help. Regardless of the path you choose, coping with cancer is completely possible.


Written by John Bankston

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