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Overcoming the Emotional Challenges of Cancer

by Dawn Speckhart, PhD

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Recently, my best friend, Greg, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Like most people, he wanted to minimize how stressful this would be on him and his family. At first, simply acknowledging the significance of his diagnosis was difficult. Thankfully, his cancer was caught early and his prognosis is good. However, he needed to undergo surgery and chemotherapy. I can remember the first time he said, “I guess this is a big deal.” After spending so much time trying to minimize the significance of being diagnosed with cancer, he finally allowed himself to accept that it was true and that he did have some concerns.

Many different emotions arise after someone is diagnosed with cancer. Like most people with cancer, Greg wanted to continue with life as if nothing was wrong. He was willing to complete necessary treatments, but minimized everything. Most people want to play down the impact of their cancer diagnosis so that they don’t worry their family and friends. In truth, this strategy is an attempt to deny that they are worried themselves. What this strategy really does is leave the person with cancer to worry alone.

The most common cause of anxiety relates to potential side effects from treatment. Greg needed chemotherapy. He claimed he wasn’t worried. Greg felt confident he was in great shape and could withstand the side effects of chemotherapy because he finished an Ironman triathlon prior to his diagnosis. He also planned to work during his chemotherapy. Of course, no one knew for sure how sick or fatigued the chemotherapy would make him feel.

No one chooses to get cancer and nothing can really prepare you for exactly what will happen along your cancer survivorship journey.

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Dr. Dawn Speckhart

Greg was shocked to discover that he felt awful from chemotherapy and was unable to do anything for several days. The point is not that everyone will have a hard time with chemotherapy treatments, but rather that everyone’s body reacts differently. Therefore, it is helpful to be emotionally prepared for the process.

Education
Get educated on treatment side effects from your oncologist. Usually, your imagination is worse than reality. Think positive. If you wake up feeling good, enjoy your day. If you wake up with symptoms, you and your medical team will deal with them.

Plan Ahead
Cancer treatments may affect your daily life which can be frustrating. People don’t want their lives disrupted by cancer, even temporarily. Be prepared for potential side effects. Set up a plan for others to help when you know your treatment is due. This will minimize stress and give you some control as you manage your disease and your life at the same time. Asking for help is a difficult transition for most people, but it helps prevent feeling overwhelmed when undergoing cancer treatment.

Depression
“Why me?” “What else can go wrong?” “How long do I have to worry about my cancer coming back?” These are all real concerns. Here are some tips to help you fight depression:

Find someone you can confide in. If you don’t have someone you feel comfortable talking to, write in a journal or contact a mental health professional.

Exercise is a natural way of fighting depression. Get up and get moving – even if you don’t feel like it.

Wake up with a purpose. What are you going to do today? Before cancer, what did you do? What did you enjoy? Plan activities that are appropriate for you at this time.

Stop negative self-talk. When you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk – stop. Change what you are saying to yourself. For example, instead of thinking, “I am afraid of getting sick again with my next cycle of chemo,” start repeating, “After this round of chemo, I am all done with my treatment,” or “After chemo, I am going to…” It’s important to stop the negative thought process and find more positive ways to think about your situation.

No one chooses to get cancer and nothing can really prepare you for exactly what will happen along your cancer survivorship journey. However, the strategies listed above, combined with maintaining a positive outlook, will help you with the emotions related to a cancer diagnosis.

Greg was able to get through his chemotherapy, realizing each cycle was bringing him one step closer to finishing his fight with cancer. He kept himself distracted with work, family, and future events. He remained as active as possible throughout his treatment, planning for another triathlon. This summer, 18 months after his diagnosis, Greg will participate in his fifth Ironman race. I can’t wait to see him cross the finish line.

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Dr. Dawn Speckhart is the psychologist at the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, GA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2012.