A diagnosis of cancer can be the most stressful of experiences for both patient and family. It can often cause emotional, spiritual, financial, occupational, relational and appearance changes and challenges, in addition to the physical rigors that accompany treatment. However, given enough support, most patients and families can adjust to a cancer crisis, learning to cope with and manage these stressors to achieve a better quality of life. Common threads seem to bind together patients and families who do learn to "manage" the stress of the cancer experience. This capacity to adjust is related less to a certain 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 and adjustment does not happen immediately. Be patient with yourself and your family, and remember that no two people cope with crisis in the exact same way. Respect differences in coping and adjusting in yourself and the people around you.
Flexibility can be an invaluable trait as you experience cancer-related changes. It will help you with frustrations such as waits in physicians' offices, as well as possible appearance changes and 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; financial, occupational and disability assistance; and help with appearance changes. Information helps to enhance your sense of control as well as making you a more informed decision-maker. From today's cancer patient publications to websites, to social service and cancer organizations, there is an invaluable amount of information and support available at no charge on local, state and federal levels. One door to all of the resources available locally is the American Cancer Society's support and education program, I Can Cope. Call 1-800-ACS-2345 or log on to www.cancer.org. 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. She can answer many of your questions when the doctor is not available. For a free set of audio tapes to help you communicate with your healthcare providers and your family, order the Cancer Survival Toolbox by calling 1-877-622-7937 or log on to www.canceradvocacy.org.
Problem Solving is a necessary skill for handling the stress of the cancer experience. It can be less overwhelming than you may think. The Cancer Survival Toolbox also offers helpful information on problem solving.
Reach out for Help. Although everyone has differing needs for support, a person rarely survives a cancer experience completely alone. It may be your family or friend to whom you turn for most of your support. In addition, you may enjoy talking with other cancer survivors, individually or in a group setting. You may also 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 adjustment issues are also available at no charge through Cancer Care, Inc. Call 1-800-813-HOPE (4673) or log on to www.cancercare.org.
Help Others. Your role as a support person to family and friends can still continue. This supporting role will enhance your own self-esteem and feelings of usefulness, help maintain some sense of normalcy within your family or network of friends and offer an important diversion for you.
Care for your Emotions. The care your mind receives is just as essential 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 is expected that you may feel depression, anxiety or grief. You may feel helpless, hopeless or sad, out of control, lose the ability to concentrate, lose interest in usual activities, change 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 daily activities, or are prolonged beyond two weeks, or if you have thoughts of harming yourself, talk with your doctor. You and your physician can create your treatment plan. It may consist of a referral to an oncology health professional who can help you learn stress management skills such as relaxation, imagery and keeping a journal and offer individual and family support and counseling. Your doctor may also suggest temporary medication. All of these can be invaluable tools for coping with the emotional distress caused by a cancer diagnosis.
Maintain Hope. Your hope will be relative to your specific situation, but nevertheless essential to coping with the stress of your cancer experience. To find out more, call the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship at 1-888-650-9127 for the booklet You Have the Right to be Hopeful.
There is no one right way to cope with the stress of a cancer experience. You are the best person to decide what is helpful and what is 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 on the path that can lead to all the support available to you.