17 ways: How one can deal with cancer emotionally?
The term ‘Cancer’ is derived from the Greek word ‘karkinos,’ meaning a crab. Quite true to its description, metaphorically, cancers hold on to the host (cancer patients) tissue, with their own unique metabolism and blood vessels. It is the second leading cause of death in the Western world after cardiovascular diseases: stroke/paralysis, and myocardial infarction/heart attack, which ranks first.
Cancer is not one disease, but a wide spectrum of disorders of uncontrolled cellular proliferation. The cellular theory of disease states that all disease processes originate at the cellular level. And, all cells arise from pre-existing cells. However, it is important to understand the nomenclature of cancer terms better to understand the disease and its consequences.
A tumor or a neoplasm (1) is an abnormal mass of tissue, the growth of which exceeds and is uncoordinated with that of normal tissues and persists in the same excessive manner after the cessation of stimuli which evoked the change in the first place. It is triggered by a series of mutations that affect a single cell and its progeny cells.
Thus, a tumor can be benign, or it can be malignant. Benign tumors are smaller in size, do not invade adjacent structures, are well capsulated, and remain localized in most cases.
Malignant tumors are called cancers (2). Cancers arising from soft tissues are called sarcomas (Liposarcoma), while those arising from the epithelial components are known as carcinomas (Breast Carcinoma). Carcinomas are further classified as Squamous Cell Carcinomas (stratified squamous epithelium) and Adenocarcinoma (in the glandular pattern).
As is evident, a lot depends on the type of cancer (benign or malignant), its subtype (squamous cell, adenocarcinoma, etc.), and the stage of cancer (Stages 1 and 2 generally have a better prognosis, while stage 4 is terminal cancer).
There is a wide variety of ways cancer patients cope up emotionally with their diagnosis, therapy, the adverse effects of chemotherapy, and the prognosis of the disease.
How can cancer patients deal with Physical Changes?
Self-image is how a person feels about himself, including positive and negative physical changes. These include hair loss, weight loss/gain, loss of an organ (E.g., mastectomy in breast cancers), fatigue and inability to perform past activities, stoma preparation (an outlet through which wastes leave the body into a bag), and rashes.
Barring a few, the majority of these resolve with time as the therapy progresses.
Physiotherapy care is an integral part of cancer management’s multi-disciplinary modalities, helping cancer patients relieve physical and emotional stress.
Cancer: Dealing with Emotional Changes
A cancer diagnosis raises a red flag associated with both near-term negative emotions and long-term positive emotions post-recovery. The negative emotions include Sadness, fear, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, anger, frustration, and guilt (read about Anxiety Disorders- Foundation of Fear and Worry). It fundamentally changes the way one thinks about life. However, many patients also experience positive spiritual and emotional changes. They include:
An appreciation of one’s body and its resilience, gratitude towards life, a self-awareness that life is short and special, the importance of family members, and forging closer relationships and clarity about one’s life goals and purpose.
So how does one cope with these physical and emotional upheavals? These approaches may help:
1. Acceptance: Take your time to accept the diagnosis and gradually adapting to it. Self-love and self-care are a must.
2. Support Groups: Sharing experiences and having one-on-one conversations with support groups (who have been/ are in similar situations) can better understand and rekindle hope.
3. Family and Friends: It is in these times that you’d realize who’d matter in your life and who goes the extra-edge to make you feel positive. Asking for help is brave, and accepting it is graceful. Outsource work which stresses you: Such as household chores, lawn mowing, or cooking meals, as you focus on healing your body.
4. Embrace Humour: Positivity and laughter, the ‘feel-happy’ emotions, help one relax and keep one’s mind off the negative feelings which might crop up from time to time.
5. Physical Activity: Exercise releases endorphins, which positively affect how you feel about yourself. Additionally, one would feel more lively and energetic to deal with the challenges of therapy. Read about: Physical Inactivity: How does it affect humans?
6. Professional Help: Ask and engage with your healthcare delivery team to express your concerns and inhibitions (for example, hair loss). Enquire about post-therapy rehabilitation such as prosthesis and implants.
7. Facing Uncertainty: A Cancer diagnosis springs up many ‘what ifs’ and ‘when’ about personal, social, and professional life. They include: putting off important events like marriage or a vacation due to uncertainty about the treatment. The fear of cancer progresses and metastasizes to different organs, coupled with anxiety about chemotherapy and radiotherapy’s adverse effects.
The chance of the therapy not working or non-responsiveness to an established therapy is another concern. Post the recovery, the incidence of recurrence of cancer is also a real concern. Lastly, the fear of prospects and death adds to the uncertainty.
So how does a cancer patient help himself/herself?
- Recognizing the things which one can control and those, which are beyond one’s control. Not letting dejections change your outlook towards life.
- Reading about cancer, you have, concerning prognosis and response to treatment, to feel in charge of the treatment.
- Lastly, engaging with the healthcare team regarding concerns, talking about it with family and close friends, and seeking professional counseling.
Cancer: Dealing with Stress
Invariably, a cancer diagnosis is a stressful condition. The following strategies (3) can help, in addition to those mentioned above, to deal with cancer stressors. These would help avoid other health problems of fatigue and, thus, further cancer patients’ well-being.
- Scheduling activities to plan one’s day well in advance. Also, ensuring enough rest between the activities optimizes the work schedule and reduces exhaustion.
- Besides, prioritizing things and completing those at the top of your list serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it will give you a sense of accomplishment in getting the task done. Secondly, one would get to know better, as to which tasks are urgent, and which tasks can be postponed further.
- Determining which activities your body is capable of and which the body does not help filter out the clutter and reduce stress. A polite no goes a long way in reducing additional burden, which might not be bearable. In most circumstances, social support knows what you are going through and would support you in your decisions.
- Lastly, it is important to practice stoicism, channelizing one’s energies and efforts towards things one can change, rather than those that cannot change. Flexibility is one of the keys to remain stress- free during this period.
- Financial hardships can be a concern, especially with mounting costs of therapy. Finding out about cancer-related insurances, social workers, and NGOs and communicating with them about one’s concerns can prevent the debt from becoming overwhelming and daunting.
- Maintaining a personal diary expressing your feelings or thoughts or plans or gratitude is a great way to lose the bottled-up feelings that one might harbor.
- Learning a new hobby, from a musical instrument to art classes, is a great way to bring out the inner hidden-child in oneself while at the same time providing a sense of gratification. Additionally, it helps one to keep the distraction of illness at bay.
- Biofeedback, Yoga, Meditation, and Visualization are other forms of cognitive therapy that one can learn and practice to tide over unpleasant feelings and the emotional stress of cancer diagnosis and therapy.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Cancer Institute, Kolkata Netaji Bose Cancer Institute ( A unit of Himadri Memorial Cancer Welfare Trust) serves humanity for the last