Coping With Cancer in Everyday Life

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For the person who has cancer

People facing cancer often find themselves facing the possibility of their own death. At first, some people focus on dying from cancer instead of living with cancer. As one woman explained, just after she was diagnosed with lung cancer she isolated herself from her family and spent a lot of time alone in her room. Before long, she realized the cancer wasn’t going to go away on its own. She decided that she could either keep pulling the covers over her head or she could tackle cancer the way she did other challenges. This adjustment in thinking takes time.

      Cheng, cancer survivor:It’s very easy to get absorbed in a sterile system of tests, procedures, and treatments and lose your individual perspective. Always remember your humanity, allowing yourself the feelings and emotions that are you. By doing this, you will make life-changing self-discoveries that you were never aware of. These discoveries will bring some understanding of the experience, motivation to face the most difficult challenges, and inspiration to others who will marvel at your never-before-seen spirit and character.”

Taking care of yourself

With the stress cancer causes, it’s important that you take care of yourself – the whole person – not just the cancer. Some people want to become more “in tune” with themselves, or just do things that take their mind off the disease. Do what you need to do. Physical activities such as walking, dancing, and yoga can improve your sense of well-being and make you more aware of your body. Poetry, music, drawing, and reading are also creative ways to express yourself and keep your mind off cancer. Meditation and relaxation training can help with anxiety and symptom control. Taking on a new and challenging activity can give you a sense of accomplishment, and can help reduce stress, too.

Let your doctor know if you are thinking about trying an alternative or unproven treatment. There are many herbs, supplements, or treatments that claim to cure or treat cancer. Some of these are harmless, while others clearly have been shown to be harmful. Also know that some of these treatments can interact with other medicines you may be taking and can cause unexpected effects. Talk to your health care team before starting anything new.

      Marisol, cancer survivor:I had 6 months of chemotherapy and during that time I tried to keep my life as stress-free and as normal as possible. I also took a ballet class during treatment. It was good exercise, I made new friends, and it really kept my mind off cancer.”

Taking care of yourself also means accepting help from others. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, he or she may need to ask for and accept help for the first time ever. This can include help from friends and family or outside help. Asking for help doesn’t mean you are weak. Arranging transportation to and from treatment, getting medical equipment to use at home, hiring a home health aide, or finding someone to watch the children while you’re getting treatments are just a few of the many tasks that may need to be done. Handling all of these changes along with your regular responsibilities can be stressful. To manage well, most people need help.

How can I relieve stress and relax?

Simple techniques can help you cope with stress and help you relax. Try some of these methods to find the ones that work best for you. You may want to check with your doctor before using any of these, especially if you have lung problems.

Muscle tension and release

  • Lie down in a quiet room.
  • Take a slow, deep breath.
  • As you breathe in, tense a muscle or group of muscles. For example, clench your teeth or stiffen your arms or legs.
  • Keep your muscles tense for a second or 2 while holding your breath.
  • Then breathe out, release the tension, and let your body relax completely.
  • Repeat the process with another muscle or muscle group.

Another way to do this is called progressive relaxation. You work your way up your body starting with the toes of one foot. Contract then relax all the muscles of one leg. Do the same with the other leg. Work your way up your body, contracting then relaxing each of the muscle groups in your body, including those in your neck and face. Remember to hold your breath while briefly contracting your muscles and to breathe out when releasing the tension.

Rhythmic breathing

  • Get into a comfortable position and relax all your muscles.
  • Close your eyes or focus on a distant object if you prefer to keep them open.
  • Breathe in and out slowly and comfortably through your nose. If you like, keep the rhythm steady by saying to yourself, “In, 1, 2. Out, 1, 2.”
  • Feel yourself relax and go limp each time you breathe out.
  • You can continue this for just a few seconds or for up to 10 minutes.

Biofeedback

With biofeedback training, you can control body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. A machine will sense and alert you when your body shows signs of tension. The machine will also give you feedback when you relax your body. With time and practice, you will learn to control your relaxation responses without having to depend on feedback from the machine. Your doctor or nurse can refer you to someone trained in teaching biofeedback.

Mental imagery

Imagery involves mental exercises designed to allow the mind to influence the health and well-being of the body.

  • Close your eyes, breathe slowly, and feel yourself relax.
  • Imagine a ball of healing energy – perhaps a white light – forming somewhere in your body.
  • When you see the ball of energy, slowly breathe in and blow the ball to any part of the body where you feel pain, tension, or discomfort. When you breathe out, picture the air moving the ball away from your body, taking with it any painful or uncomfortable feelings. (Be sure to breathe naturally; don’t blow.)
  • Continue to picture the ball moving toward you and away from you each time you breathe in and out. You may see the ball getting bigger and bigger as it takes away more and more tension and discomfort.

Visualization

Visualization is much like imagery. With visualization, you create an inner picture that represents your fight against cancer. You might visualize rockets blasting away the cancer cells in your body or knights in armor battling the cells.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis puts you in a trance-like state that can help reduce discomfort and anxiety. You can be hypnotized by a qualified person, or you can learn how to hypnotize yourself. If you are interested in learning more, ask your doctor or nurse to refer you to someone trained in the technique.

Distraction

Distract yourself from your worries or discomforts by watching TV, listening to the radio, reading, going to the movies, or working with your hands by doing needlework or puzzles, building models, or painting. You may be surprised how comfortably the time passes.

Adjusting to changes in your body and self-image

Cancer and its treatment can cause physical changes. Some people feel insecure about how these changes affect their body and their self-image.

Surgery can change the way you look. Other treatments can affect how you feel. Side effects from cancer treatment, such as weight loss or weight gain, hair loss, and skin changes can also change the way you look. Fatigue can make it harder for you to care for your appearance.

The type of treatment, the drugs and their dosages, and the schedule of treatment all have an impact on the side effects you have. Just how bad the side effects are can vary from person to person. The same treatments may cause side effects in some people and not in others. Be sure to let your doctor and nurse know which side effects you have, if any, and how bad they are.

Your health care team can help manage side effects when they know how treatment is affecting you physically and emotionally. Ask your doctor what side effects you should expect and how long they’re likely to last. Also, find out which side effects you need to report right away. You’ll need to know how to get in touch with your doctor outside of regular office hours if needed.

Some people find it hard to be hopeful when their treatment makes them feel bad and look different. People with cancer can become frustrated when they do everything right but it doesn’t help, or when treatment must be delayed because their body is unable to handle any more. Sometimes changes in your mood are caused by certain medicines, while other times they may be linked to the stress of coping with cancer and treatment. It’s normal to have ups and downs during cancer treatment.

Body changes from cancer treatment can range from hair loss to the loss of a limb. These kinds of changes can be hard to handle because others can see them. Many people who lose hair choose to wear scarves, wigs, or hats. Some people choose artificial limbs (prostheses) and reconstructive surgery after cancer surgery. Both short- and long-term solutions like these draw less attention to or help hide a person’s physical differences.

      Sean, cancer survivor:I had 2 surgeries; the first to remove the cancerous testicle and the second to remove lymph nodes in my abdomen. The lymph node surgery affected how I feel about my body and self-image more than the first surgery. I’m more self-conscious about the scars on my abdomen. I was given the option of reconstruction of the testicle after my first surgery but I wasn’t interested.”

When making difficult decisions, it often helps to talk with others who have had the same type of reconstructive surgery or wear the same type of prosthesis. Ask your surgeon if he or she is able to share photos that show actual results of reconstructive surgery.

Check with your health insurance company about coverage for reconstructive surgery or prostheses. Your hospital social worker may also be able to help you find ways to pay for it. Insurance coverage can be limited either by dollar amount or the number of prostheses (for example, mastectomy bras and breast forms) you can purchase in a certain amount of time.

Sexuality and cancer

Personal traits, such as a person’s sense of humor, attitudes, honesty, and spirit, are a large part of what makes them attractive to their partner. Cancer treatment may seem to change these qualities, but the change is usually short-term. You are still the same partner, lover, and friend. It’s important to remember those traits are still there, but for the moment may be overshadowed by the cancer experience.

Fertility and birth control

If you think you might want to have children later, it’s very important to talk with your doctor about fertility and birth control issues before you start treatment. Many cancer treatments can result in infertility or sterility. For most people, there are ways to preserve their ability to have children, but it’s best if this is done before starting therapy.

Keep in mind that even when sterility is a possible side effect of treatment, it’s important to use an effective method of birth control. Even if the risk of pregnancy is very small, birth control must be used during, and for some time after, cancer treatment because many cancer treatments can harm a developing fetus. It’s not safe to get pregnant during cancer treatment.

For more information about fertility, see our documents Fertility and Women With Cancer and Fertility and Men With Cancer.

Side effects can change your sex life

Side effects of cancer treatment can also affect a person’s sexuality. Some side effects that can do this are fatigue, lack of desire, and feeling physically unattractive. Women may have vaginal dryness, and men may notice the inability to have or keep an erection. Physical side effects, such as fatigue and nausea, can decrease a person’s desire for sex. Fear, anxiety, or depression can affect your sexuality, too. These side effects, like most other physical and emotional side effects, can often be managed or helped with treatment. Although you may feel embarrassed, it’s important to talk to your doctor about them.

Try to let your partner know what’s comfortable for you and when you feel up to sexual contact. Your partner may want to give you the space and time you need to adjust to changes in your body and self-image. Your partner may not want to rush you or seem to be insensitive, so it helps if you tell them about your desire for physical intimacy. Be specific about what you want. Over time, physical contact other than sex, such as hugging, kissing, and touching may help you express love and feel more comfortable about being close.

The effect of cancer on your relationship with your partner

Some people are afraid their partner will avoid physical contact with them. Others may fear their partner will leave them or find someone else. If there were problems in the relationship before a cancer diagnosis, they will still be there after the cancer diagnosis. Likewise, if a couple works through problems well, chances are good they will face this challenge in much the same way. When a couple communicates, they can usually work toward resolving their feelings and the added stress that cancer can place on a relationship.

Facing cancer as a couple can also strengthen a relationship. Cancer can help people realize what’s really important to them. Priorities or problems they once saw as important may now seem less important or smaller.

      Delores, cancer survivor:Cancer has a way of making you take an inventory of your life. It has made some good changes in my life. I think that my husband and I are closer as a result.”

People who are not able to get support from their partners can find support elsewhere, such as through counseling, a support group, or friends. Counseling can help explore ways to improve communication and resolve problems in relationships. For those who are unable to work through these issues alone, professional counseling for individuals or couples is an option. Support groups that are offered by licensed or trained professionals may also be a source of practical advice and ideas about coping with changes in sexuality. Groups are available for people with cancer, for partners/spouses, and for couples.

For more information about sexuality, sex, and intimacy, see our documents Sexuality for the Woman With Cancer and Sexuality for the Man With Cancer.


Last Medical Review: 06/26/2014
Last Revised: 06/26/2014