I’ve Just Been Diagnosed with Cancer. Now What?
Tips for Adjusting to Your New Life as a Person with Cancer
by Sarah Rosenbloom, PhD
A diagnosis of any type of cancer can be shocking and devastating, even if it is treatable or curable. When you first learn you have cancer, you may feel as if your life is out of control. You may wonder if you’re going to live, your normal routine is disrupted by doctor visits and treatments, you may feel like you can’t do the things you enjoy, and you can feel helpless and lonely.
Once the shock wears off, the process of making changes in your life can begin. Symptoms often take a toll on both your body and your emotions, and you might have to learn new ways of talking to your loved ones and your healthcare team … in addition to having to learn a whole new language of medical terms. You may have questions about adjusting to all the new challenges that cancer can bring, and it can be overwhelming. But you can – and will – find your new normal.
Dealing with Difficult Emotions
Just as cancer can affect your physical health, it can also bring up a wide range of feelings that you may not be used to dealing with, including anxiety, fear, depression, anger, and guilt. It can also make many emotions seem more intense. You may feel differently from day to day, or even hour to hour! This can happen whether you’re in treatment, you’re done with treatment, or are a friend or family member of someone going through treatment. These feelings are all normal, and the good news is they usually improve over time.
However, for some people, feelings of depression or anxiety do not improve over time and may get in the way of daily life. If your emotions remain intense and it becomes difficult to function for more than a few weeks, you should talk to your doctor. Some physical symptoms, such as sleep problems, upset stomach, changes in energy level, or fatigue, can have emotional components that can be treated.
When you’ve received a diagnosis of cancer, you may also get a lot of advice … Most will be well-meaning, and some will miss the mark.
Many people feel less afraid when they learn more about what to expect. Some studies suggest that people who are well-informed about their illness and treatment are more likely to follow their treatment plans and recover from cancer more quickly than those who are not. When you’re anxious, however, it can be very difficult to process and retain new information. [See sidebar below for suggestions on how to manage the flow of information that comes after a cancer diagnosis.] Not everyone wants to know all the facts and be very involved in medical decision-making, so do what feels right for you.
Holding on to Normalcy
Trying to maintain your normal lifestyle as much as possible can be helpful. Regular routines, habits, and activities are important to preserving your identity and sense of self. Keeping in contact with others in your life may help you stay connected to other parts of your life. When the future is uncertain, however, regular responsibilities, organizing, and planning may suddenly seem overwhelming. Only do what you feel able to, and try to let family and friends help you where possible.
Seeking Emotional Support
Many people find that when they express strong feelings like anger or sadness, they are more able to let go of them. Look for emotional support in different ways. Talk to friends or family, other cancer survivors, a support group, a therapist, or a spiritual leader. If you prefer not to discuss your illness with others, you can still sort out your feelings by thinking about them or writing them down. Keeping a journal has been shown to reduce stress and promote a range of physical, emotional, and psychosocial benefits.
Accentuating the Positive
Believe it or not, it is possible to have positive feelings, such as joy, hope, and gratitude, after a cancer diagnosis. Millions of people who’ve had cancer are alive today, and your chances of living with cancer – and beyond it – are better now than they have ever been before. Some people see their cancer diagnosis as a “wake-up call,” which helps them to make positive changes and prioritize things or relationships that are especially important but may have been neglected due to the demands of day-to-day life.
Finding Ways of Coping
When you’ve received a diagnosis of cancer, you may also get a lot of advice … from friends, family, doctors and nurses, people who’ve had cancer, the internet, and even articles like this one. Most will be well-meaning, and some will miss the mark. The important thing to remember is that, just as each person’s cancer and treatment is individual and unique, so are their methods of coping.
You should develop your own coping strategies that feel natural and comfortable for you. While your chemo neighbor might be practicing meditation, you may be listening to rock music on your headphones (or vice versa). What has helped you through tough times before your cancer diagnosis is likely to help ease your worries now, whether that is talking to a friend, taking a walk, or engaging in a favorite meaningful activity that recharges you. Many resources exist to help you through adjusting to a cancer diagnosis – but the best expert on what helps you is you!
Pocket Guide to Cancer Survival
Write down your questions and concerns before your doctor visits.
- If possible, bring a family member or friend to help you remember what you hear.
- If you can, let your healthcare team know whether you want to know all the facts or just the basics.
- The best time to plan for potential changes to your routines is before you begin treatment.
- Stay flexible – changes may come when you least expect them.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle, eating a variety of foods, getting adequate rest, and exercising.
- Take it one day at a time – it’s easy to overlook this simple strategy during stressful times.
- Let friends and family help you where possible, with errands, transportation, meals, and chores.
- Express how you really feel – to other people, in a journal, or through another outlet.
- Seek support from others.
Dr. Sarah Rosenbloom is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL, and is the director of a private practice focusing on helping people manage medical illnesses like cancer. Learn more at SarahRosenbloomPhD.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2017.