Cancer And The Emotional Impacts: How To Stay Strong During Treatment
Psychological stress caused by cancer over a long period of time directly impacts wellbeing and quality of life. Understanding potential triggers can help cancer patients cope with the change.
Psychological stress is an undeniable side effect of cancer treatment. Coming face to face with one’s mortality and seeing your whole world shaken up is enough to distress anyone. Some cancer patients take the news better than others—but the feelings of fear and anxiety are ongoing and hinder daily life activities.
These feelings can often multiply when you’re waiting to hear back about test results or have to prepare for a new session of treatment. In my case, I noticed that the anticipation and worry would make me more irritable and sometimes even physically nauseous. Others struggle with poor quality of sleep due to nightmares, depression, lack of concentration, and racing thoughts during this time.
The good news is that many sources of stress are predictable and thus may be avoidable. Small changes in your routine can help you cope better with certain stressors and make your cancer journey just a bit easier.
Consider these strategies for managing stress from one cancer patient to another:
1. Avoid Scheduling Conflicts
Keep track of your appointments and activities for the week with the help of an online calendar or health organizer (like this one designed especially for cancer patients), so that you don’t overburden yourself. It’s a good idea to plan activities beforehand and give yourself ample time to complete them.
Make sure you have plenty of time before and after doctor’s appointment and lab visits, so you’re not stressed out about other commitments. It’s normal for visits to the doctor to run longer than expected. Or you might find that you’re feeling too exhausted after the visit to do anything else. In this case, it’s a good idea to keep your schedule clear for the day, so you aren’t stressed out by other commitments.
2. Don’t Push Yourself Too Hard
Before my diagnosis, I took spinning classes with a couple of my friends about four days a week. After sessions, it was routine for us to hang out for some time at the local coffee shop or have an early lunch somewhere. After I started chemo, it became impossible to match the lifestyle I had before. The girls would often ask to join them for lunch even if I couldn’t make it to class—but on some days, my body couldn’t even handle making it to the car.
Many people don’t understand that the fatigue that comes with treatment doesn’t go away with rest or sleep. Doctors don’t know the exact cause behind the issue, but it’s a very common pain point for patients during their first year of treatment. Explaining this to my friends made it a bit easier. After class, they would often come over, and we would practice yoga (or at least attempt to) together.
Just remember that if you don’t have the energy, time, or interest to complete a task, it’s okay to decline politely. A cancer diagnosis is a life-changing event, and it’s alright to feel overwhelmed by the same activities that you did previously without much thought. Focus on the things that matter most, such as your own wellbeing and mental health.
3. Practice Mindfulness
After listening to a podcast about mindfulness and emotional intelligence, I decided to apply those principles to my approach when dealing with cancer. After a cancer diagnosis, it’s tempting to “reject” your body because it feels like it has let you down. But practicing mindfulness helped me cope with the daily stresses and realize the importance of self-care and self-compassion.
Mindfulness is about being open to experiences in the present; it’s about focusing on how your body and mind are feeling in the moment. There are several ways to practice mindfulness and build your emotional intelligence.
When I’m feeling particularly stressed, I stop whatever I’m doing and take a minute to breathe. Deep breathing for a minute helps me take control of the racing thoughts and brings me back to the now. Meditation and journaling my thoughts also helped me understand my feelings, go into deeper reflection and stay aware of what my needs are at just that point in time.
4. Manage Finances Early On
It’s no secret that cancer treatment and recovery is an expensive process that often pushes family finances into the red. During a time of fractured physical and mental health, going over money matters seems like the last thing you would want to do. But in my experience, it’s best to figure these things out early on because late bills and debt can take an additional toll on your wellbeing.
Prior to the diagnosis, my husband and I were both working and had enough to support ourselves and put some money aside each month. Once the treatment began, I had to take an extended leave of absence without pay, which quickly cut into our savings. Fortunately, my husband had the foresight to make a financial plan early on and learn more about our insurance coverage, which helped simplify things to a great extent.
Although we were lucky enough to get through the chemo and surgery without any external help, many people aren’t. There are many national and local agencies that offer financial assistance to cancer patients and their families. Learning about your options at the start through research or by talking to an oncology social worker can help you control your financial situation better during the treatment.
5. Do Things You Enjoy
Although you might not be able to enjoy the same activities that you did before your treatment began, there are still many things that can help take your mind off things. During my seemingly-endless hospital visits, I came across many techniques that cancer patients use to stay busy. From reading, listening to podcasts, and watching TV, to more active pursuits such as drawing and meditation.
Yes, some days are tougher to get through than others, and it’s okay to step back and give yourself some downtime on those days. But it’s equally important to enjoy the better days. Play fun card or board games with your family, go on walks in nature or trips to the mall or the beach, and connect with new people that you come across on your journey. You never know the kind of impact they may have on your life and you on theirs.
6. Eat Healthy
A less talked about side effect of chemo treatment is that it kills your appetite. Even the thought of food was enough to make me feel light-headed at times. Other times, I would feel fine while eating but quickly develop the urge to throw up soon after a meal. It seemed like my body was just rejecting food altogether at one point.
My doctors recommended a couple of things to deal with the nausea, but ultimately, I had to see what would work for me. Ginger, peppermint, and lemon usually worked well for nausea symptoms. While ginger tea was too strong for me, I found that Queasy Drops containing ginger worked best to keep down my food. Plus, taking smaller meals throughout the day instead of the usual three meals made things easier too.
7. Getting Adequate Sleep
The fatigue that comes with treatment often left me feeling exhausted. Chemo treatment also comes with heavy drugs that can make you feel tired and sleepy during the day. As a result, my nights were often restless, and I had trouble falling asleep. As I learned later, anxiety and stress can exacerbate these symptoms.
Taking up more active tasks during the first half of the day and focusing on slowly gearing down is a great way to teach your body to slow down and get into a rhythm of sleep. Keeping lights dim in the evening, bringing down the temperature a few degrees, and slipping into something comfortable all helped signal to my body that it was time to fall asleep.
8. Taking Stress Seriously
Like many people, my response to learning about the cancer diagnosis was to “act tough” and “prepare myself mentally” for the treatments. My goal was to get through the whole thing with minimal impact on my daily routine and life as I know it. When things got out of control or my schedule didn’t go as planned, I would find myself stressing out even more and getting frustrated at myself.
Recognizing the toll that all this self-induced stress was taking on my body was the first step to improving my life. It was only after I realized what the stress was doing to me that I began to pull back and acknowledge that I couldn’t control everything. Many people need some encouragement and support before they can come to this realization. Talking to a grief counselor or joining a support group might just be the way to get through for you.
9. Ask for Help
I know this is easier said than done—but asking friends, family members, and coworkers for help is okay. I’ve noticed that people often offer support but won’t know exactly how to help. In this case, I think about particular tasks that I might need help with, such as meal preparation, grocery shopping, or pet-sitting.
Prioritizing tasks and planning ahead definitely makes it easier for me to coordinate help from loved ones. Your friends and family members often mean well when they ask how they can help but are unsure what to do. When you already have things in mind, it becomes easier for them to do something useful and ensures that you get exactly what you need.
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