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Staying Positive after a Cancer Diagnosis

by Ann Webster, PhD

Wellness image

Laughter has many health benefits, so spend some time with people who make you laugh.

How am I going to cope with this?
My whole life has changed. Where do I find some hope? These are questions and statements I often hear from the survivors in my Mind Body Cancer Program. Cancer survivors face numerous challenges – physical, psychological, social, and spiritual. They also experience stress associated with treatment decisions and side effects. Maintaining optimism, resiliency, and strength is not always easy.

In my Mind Body program for cancer, I offer people with cancer self-care techniques that enable them to maximize their health and live more fully in mind, body, and spirit. These techniques, all proven effective by research, are incredibly simple.

Relaxation Response
The foundation of everything I teach is the “relaxation response,” a state of quiet in the mind and the body, which is the opposite of a stress response. It decreases activity in the sympathetic nervous system, reduces stress hormones, and changes chemistry in the brain. I teach a 20-minute relaxation exercise, and everyone receives my relaxation CD with instructions to listen to it daily. This helps create inner stillness. After a few weeks, the survivors in my program report they are less anxious and depressed, their sleep has improved, and they are happier and more alert.

Replace your negative thoughts with positive ones. When you change your mind, you change your mood.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Ann Webster

Other relaxation techniques include yoga, mindfulness, diaphragmatic breathing, imagery, and self-hypnosis. I also encourage prayer. I suggest that people use these simple practices when they might be anxious, for example, during a biopsy, a CT scan, chemotherapy, radiation, or when waiting to see a doctor.

Attitude of Gratitude
To stay positive, keep an “attitude of gratitude” journal and write in it every day. When coping with cancer, it’s easy to forget that you have much to be grateful for. Keeping a gratitude journal is a good way to remind yourself.

As upsetting as cancer can be, it can also bring benefits. I often hear, Why did it take cancer to get me to “wake up?” Things that used to look vital no longer do, and other issues take on looming importance. People change careers, develop more intense relationships, and experience increased spirituality and altruism. Research calls this “benefit finding,” “resiliency,” or “vital engagement in life.” All create positive emotions.

Ask yourself these questions: What is most meaningful in my life now? Why am I here? What are the gifts I have to give? What is God’s will for me? Create quiet time, close your eyes, and reflect on how these questions apply to your life, career or education, relationships, creativity, play, health, spirituality, volunteering, and self-transformation. When you have answers, open your eyes and write them down. Then begin taking baby steps toward attaining your goals. Notice how great you feel when that happens.

News and Goods
Every day, do something new or good for yourself. This doesn’t have to be big or cost a lot of money. You might treat yourself to a delicious piece of dark chocolate, call a friend, take an aromatherapy bath instead of a quick shower, or walk in nature. These instantly perk up your spirits.

When dealing with cancer, and everything else life brings you, your mind becomes very busy. You might discover that you do a lot of jumping to conclusions, “fortune telling,” or “catastrophizing.” Perhaps you ruminate about the past. Your mind is not in the present. Your negative thoughts create negative feelings, and many of them are distorted, unhelpful, and not even true. Ask yourself, Is it really helping me to think this way? Replace your negative thoughts with positive ones. When you change your mind, you change your mood.

Laugh more often. Spend time with people who make you laugh. Watch funny movies. Laughter has many health benefits, including boosting your immune system and releasing beta-endorphins (natural painkillers). And the benefits of laughter last way beyond the laugh.

Stay fit. Find some form of exercise you like and can do several times a week, such as walking, yoga, Tai Chi, swimming, or a dance class. Exercise maintains stamina, bone health, muscle mass, and a healthy heart. Exercise also improves your mood.

It is my hope that in practicing some of these simple techniques, you will feel more peaceful, optimistic, and energetic. You may feel more connected to yourself and the world around you and discover a more inspired way of living.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Ann Webster is the director of the Mind Body Program for Cancer at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2012.