Distress in People With Cancer

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How can I help myself cope with cancer?

People value the care they get from their cancer care team, but many also want to take an active role in dealing with their illness. Dr. Jimmie Holland has spent more than 30 years caring for patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and offers some ideas on helpful ways to cope with cancer. They are divided into those attitudes and beliefs that clearly are helpful (the Do’s) and those that are harmful (the Don’ts).

Do –

  • Rely on ways of coping that have helped you solve problems and crises in the past. Know that almost everyone needs to have people around them who they can count on to help when needed. Find someone you feel comfortable talking with about your illness. When you would rather not talk, you may find that relaxation, meditation, listening to music, or other things that calm you are helpful. Use whatever has worked for you before, but if what you’re doing isn’t working, find a different way to cope, or get professional help.
  • Deal with cancer “one day at a time.” Try to leave worries about the future behind. The task of coping with cancer often seems less overwhelming when you break it up into “day bites,” which are easier to manage. This also allows you to focus on getting the most out of each day in spite of your illness.
  • Use support and self-help groups if they make you feel better. Leave any group that makes you feel worse.
  • Find a doctor who lets you ask all your questions. Make sure there is a feeling of mutual respect and trust. Insist on being a partner in your treatment. Ask what side effects you should expect and be prepared for them. Knowing what problems may come often makes it easier to handle them if and when they happen.
  • Explore spiritual and religious beliefs and practices, such as prayer, that may have helped you in the past. If you don’t consider yourself a religious or spiritual person, get support from any belief systems that you value. This may comfort you and even help you find meaning in the experience of your illness.
  • Keep a personal notebook of your doctors’ numbers, dates of treatments, lab values, x-rays, scans, symptoms, side effects, medicines, and general medical status. Information about the cancer and your treatment is important to have, and no one can keep it better than you.
  • Keep a journal if you find a need to express yourself without holding back. It can help you process the journey, and you may be amazed by how helpful it can be.

Don’t –

  • Believe the old saying that “cancer equals death.” There are more than 14 million Americans alive today who have had cancer.
  • Blame yourself for causing your cancer. There is no scientific proof linking certain personalities, emotional states, or painful life events to getting cancer. Even if you may have raised your cancer risk through smoking or some other habit, it does not help to blame yourself or beat yourself up.
  • Feel guilty if you can’t keep a positive attitude all the time, especially when you don’t feel well. The saying “you have to be positive to beat cancer” is not true. Low periods will come, no matter how great you are at coping. There is no proof that those times have a bad effect on your health or tumor growth. But if they become frequent or severe, get help.
  • Suffer in silence. Don’t try to go it alone – get support from your family, loved ones, friends, doctor, clergy, or those you meet in support groups who understand what you are going through. You will likely cope better and take care of yourself better with people around who care about you and can help encourage and support you.
  • Be embarrassed or ashamed to get help from a mental health expert for anxiety or depression that disrupts your sleep, eating, ability to concentrate, ability to function normally, or if you feel your distress is getting out of control.
  • Keep your worries or symptoms (physical or psychological) secret from the person closest to you. Ask this person to come with you to appointments and talk about your treatment. Research shows that people don’t often hear or absorb information when they are very anxious. A close friend or family member can help you recall and interpret what was said. As a practical matter, your friend or loved one can also help you get home from a doctor’s visit or medical test.
  • Abandon your regular treatment for an alternative therapy. If you use a treatment that your doctor didn’t recommend, use only those that you know do no harm. Find out if the treatment can be safely used along with your regular therapies (as a complementary therapy) to improve your quality of life. Be sure to tell your doctor which treatments you are using with the medical treatment, since some should not be used during chemo or radiation treatments. Discuss the pros and cons of any alternative or complementary therapies with someone you can trust to look at them more objectively than you may be able to when you are under stress. Psychological, social, and spiritual approaches are helpful and safe, and doctors generally encourage their use. Things like relaxation and meditation are good ways to deal with distress.

Other coping methods: Exercise

Exercise is not only safe for most people during cancer treatment, but it can also help you feel better. Moderate exercise has been shown to help with tiredness, anxiety, muscle strength, and heart and blood vessel fitness.

Most people with cancer can do some form of exercise. For example, walking is a good way to get started and a good way to keep moving when you are feeling stressed. Talk with your doctor about your exercise plans before you start. Depending on your level of physical fitness, you may need help from a physical therapist to get started on a program that will work for you and is safe.

Keep in mind that even though exercise may help lower distress levels in some people, exercise alone is usually not enough to help people with moderate to severe distress.


Last Medical Review: 08/11/2014
Last Revised: 08/13/2014