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Maintaining Your Emotional Health after Cancer

by Kristin Kilbourn, PhD, MPH

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A diagnosis of cancer can create a great deal of disruption in your life. You may experience multiple stressors, such as interruption of life tasks and goals, treatment side effects, financial difficulties, work- and family-related disruptions, changes in social networks, and uncertainty about the future. It is estimated that approximately one-third to one-half of all people diagnosed with cancer experience high levels of distress during their illness, and some may develop depression and anxiety disorders. Early identification of depression and anxiety is important so that you may receive timely treatment and minimize the potential long-term complications.

If you experience significant emotional or physical distress that does not improve over time, you may benefit from psychosocial intervention. Counseling provides a safe environment for you and your family to express your feelings without being judged or feeling as though you’re burdening others with your problems. You can attend therapy sessions on a regular basis or as needed. Many cancer survivors benefit from just a few visits, during which they can express their fears, concerns, and negative emotions and review adaptive coping techniques.

Psychosocial interventions can also help you manage some of the adverse side effects of cancer treatment, including pain, cancer-related fatigue, and cognitive challenges associated with treatment, such as chemo brain. Structured group interventions can assist with your psychosocial adjustment because they allow you to connect with others who have had similar experiences.

Individuals who engage in social activities and stay connected with family and friends tend to experience less distress.

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Dr. Kristin Kilbourn

You can also do a number of things on your own to improve or maintain your emotional health while undergoing cancer treatment, including managing daily stressors, utilizing adaptive coping techniques, connecting with friends and family, re-evaluating your goals and priorities, and engaging in positive health behaviors.

Stress Management
Managing stress is an important component of good selfcare because chronic stress can have a negative impact on physical and emotional well-being. Some activities that can alleviate or decrease the negative effects of stress include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery exercises, yoga, Tai Chi, walking and other forms of exercise, prayer or meditation, crafts and artistic endeavors, listening to soothing music, and regular engagement in pleasurable activities.

Coping Strategies
Coping strategies play an important role in maintaining and improving your emotional and physical health. To determine the appropriate adaptive coping response for a situation, you need to first identify the controllable versus uncontrollable aspects of the stressor and then determine which coping response will be the most effective.

♦ Problem-focused coping works best when you are dealing with a stressor that is controllable and changeable, such as determining where you should go for your cancer treatment. Some adaptive problem-focused coping strategies include seeking information, decision-making, setting goals, and asking for help.

♦ Emotion-focused coping works well for stressors that are uncontrollable, such as the diagnosis of cancer. Examples of emotion-focused coping strategies include reframing your thoughts, exercising, journaling, and acceptance.

Your Social Support Network
Individuals who engage in social activities and stay connected with family and friends tend to experience less distress. Social support is an important component of stress management and good mental health because it serves as a buffer for stressful life events, provides an outlet to talk about your feelings and emotions, and keeps you engaged in activities that serve as a diversion from your cancer experience.

Positive Benefits
While the experience of going through cancer treatment is typified as negative, many cancer survivors ascribe some positive benefits to the experience. When confronted with your own mortality, you may reevaluate what is most important to you and emerge with a greater appreciation of life. For many, this can be a time of productive inner growth.

A Healthy Lifestyle
Maintaining good nutrition while undergoing cancer treatment can have a positive impact on both your physical and emotional health. Staying physically active can also help to decrease some of the side effects of cancer treatment. It’s important to talk to your medical providers about dietary and exercise recommendations. Additionally, sleep is often disrupted during treatment, and you may find that you need to try out different strategies to improve your sleep.

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Dr. Kristin Kilbourn is an assistant professor in the department of Psychology at the University of Colorado Denver. She is a member of the University of Colorado Comprehensive Cancer Center and an adjunct faculty member in the departments of Internal Medicine and Psychiatry on the University of Colorado Denver Medical Campus.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2012.