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Facing Lung Cancer

by Vladimir Lange, MD

Photo by Cancer Type

“You have lung cancer.” These may be the most frightening words you’ve ever heard. You may feel scared, angry, crushed – or you may be in complete denial. The best approach you can take is to resolve, right now, that you will do everything you can to make sure your treatment is successful. So, where do you begin?

Understanding Your Feelings
The first few weeks after your diagnosis may be the hardest to handle. You may spend hours dwelling on questions such as “Why me?” or “Will the cancer kill me?” Or you might find yourself feeling “blue” and depressed to the point of not caring about the outcome of your disease. You might snap in anger or frustration at friends and at loved ones.

This confusing roller coaster of emotions is normal. Don’t be too hard on yourself if your emotions slip out of your control every once in a while. You are going through a lot, and you don’t need to be in perfect balance all the time.

If you cannot deal with your feelings on your own, look for help. The best thing to do is to find someone you can talk to about what you are experiencing. This should be a mature, well-adjusted person who can listen without passing judgment. Very close friends or family members may not be the best choice, because they can be too involved in the situation to remain objective.

Now is not the time to feel guilty. It is the time to make changes that will have a positive effect on your life.

Ask your doctor, nurse, or social worker for a referral to a professional counselor, or to a local support group of cancer survivors who meet regularly to offer mutual support and encouragement. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers can be very helpful with problems such as depression, panic attacks, feelings of isolation, anger, and other issues that may concern you.

Dealing with Guilt
In most people’s minds, lung cancer is linked to smoking. So if you are, or were, a smoker, it is natural that one of the first thoughts to leap into your mind is, “I brought this on myself. Oh, why did I smoke?!” The guilt and regret you may be feeling may be even worse than the fear of the cancer itself.

Let me tell you about a very sophisticated medical device, often used by both physicians and laymen. It is called the retrospectoscope. It consists of two parts: a rear view mirror, for close examination of things you didn’t do, and a whip, for repeatedly punishing yourself for not having done them. Put the retrospectoscope down! Instead of driving with eyes glued to the past, focus on what lies ahead. Do the best you can with the cards you have been dealt.

Some people with lung cancer find comfort in the fact that two out of ten lung cancers occur in people who never even touched a cigarette. Others dwell on the statistic that the vast majority of smokers live to a ripe old age without ever having any respiratory problems. Use whatever thinking will allow you to feel better about the smoking, and move forward. Now is not the time to feel guilty. It is the time to make changes that will have a positive effect on your life.

And, by the way, it’s never too late to quit smoking. It will do wonders in helping you get through the treatment, particularly surgery, and its side effects. So put the cigarette down, too.

If you never smoked, or stopped a long time ago, you may be inclined to place blame on those responsible for generating second-hand smoke. Or you may wonder if you had been exposed to something harmful at work, or in the environment. More than likely, you will never know what caused your lung cancer. Right now, how or why you wound up with lung cancer is not nearly as important as what you do next.

Dealing with Fear
When you are told you have lung cancer, it is perfectly normal to think about long-term outcomes and death. The thought of dying may also be unavoidable during certain times of your treatment. Don’t let these thoughts paralyze you or prevent you from putting up the best fight you can.

You need to take one step at a time. This is not the time to dwell on lung cancer mortality figures. Your energy should be focused on learning everything you can about your disease. And I mean your disease, not about what happens to other people with other types of lung cancer.

Become an active participant and work with your healthcare team. Try to get an idea of what lies ahead; do not dwell on the worst possible outcome, but strive to achieve the best possible outcome.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Excerpted with permission from Be a Survivor: Lung Cancer Treatment Guide, by Vladimir Lange, MD, copyright © 2010 by Lange Productions.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2011.