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Coping with the Stress of Cancer

A diagnosis of cancer can be the most stressful of experiences for both the patient and their family. It can often cause emotional, spiritual, financial, occupational, relational and appearance changes and challenges, along with the physical stress and changes that come with treatment. However, given enough support, most patients and families can adjust to a cancer crisis, learning to cope with and manage these stressors to have the best possible quality of life. Common threads seem to bind together patients and families who learn to "manage" the stress of cancer. This ability to adjust is related less to the diagnosis, prognosis or treatment plan, than to coping skills that can be learned by most people.

Adjustment is a key word as cancer brings many changes into peoples' lives. But adjustment does not happen right away. Be patient with yourself and your family, and remember that no two people cope with crisis in the same way. Respect differences in coping and adjusting in yourself and the people around you.

Flexibility can be a valuable trait as you go throughtcancer-related changes. It will help you with frustrations, such as waits in doctors' offices, as well as changes in the way you look and possible disability issues. Try to control what you can, while accepting changes that you cannot.

Seek Information from the many available resources on medical care; emotional and spiritual support; money issues, work and disability assistance; and help with appearance changes. Information helps to give you a better sense of control and makes you a more informed decision-maker. There's a lot of information and support available for free at local, state and federal levels. One door to many of the resources available where you live is the American Cancer Society's support and education program, I Can Cope. Call 1-800-227-2345 or log on to Your local cancer center may also have a cancer resource line you can access.

Learn to Communicate with healthcare providers. Cancer treatment is a different world with a whole new language that you will need to learn. Get organized and keep a notebook with an ongoing log of questions for your doctor. Bring the list with you as well as another person, ideally the same person every time, who can be your second set of ears. Also, get to know the nurse working with your doctor. He or she can answer many of your questions when the doctor is not available.

Reach out for Help. Although everyone has differing needs for support, a person rarely survives a cancer experience completely alone. It may be a family member or friend you can turn to for most of your support. You may also enjoy talking with other cancer survivors, one-on-one or in a group setting. You may find it helpful to talk with a specially trained counselor, such as an oncology social worker, most of whom are licensed counselors, or a clinical nurse specialist. These professionals are usually available through your local cancer center. Counselors trained in cancer issues are also available at no charge through Cancer Care, Inc. Call 1-800-813-HOPE (4673) or log on to

Help Others. Your role as a support person to family and friends can still continue. This will enhance your own self-esteem and feelings of usefulness, help you maintain some sense of normalcy within your family and/or network of friends and offer an important diversion for you.

Care for your Emotions. Caring for your mind and your feelings is just as important to your cancer treatment plan as the care your body receives - after all, the two are connected. Cancer can cause many changes in a person's life and therefore it's expected that you may feel depression, anxiety or grief or any number of emotions as you adjust to the changes cancer brings to your life. You may feel helpless, hopeless or sad, out of control, lose your ability tofocus, lose interest in usual activities, change your eating and/or sleeping habits, withdraw from family and friends, worry excessively and/or have feelings of doom, just to name a few. If these feelings become severe, interrupt your daily activities, last beyond two weeks, or if you have thoughts of harming yourself, talk with your doctor. Work with your health care team to create a treatment plan that works for you. It may include things like a referral to an oncology health professional who can help you learn stress management skills such as relaxation or imagery, keeping a journal, and individual and family support and counseling. Your doctor may also suggest medicines that may help. All of these can be valuable tools for coping with the emotional distress caused by a cancer diagnosis.

There's no one right way to cope with the stress of cancer. You are the best person to decide what's helpful and what's not. How you adjust to stress now will depend on how you have coped with past crises, what coping skills you already have, and your openness to learning new ones. To begin to manage the stress of your cancer experience, make a list of your stressors. Then set out to access the support available to you.

Adapted with permission of COPING magazine, author Kimberly Barrio, MSW, LCSW.

Para solicitar información en español, llame al 1-800-227-2345. Un especialista en información sobre el cáncer le asistirá en español.