People value the care they get from their cancer care team, but many also want to take an active role in managing their illness. But distress can be hard for some people to manage on their own. Don't hesitate to talk to the cancer care team when you're feeling distress that's hard to handle. Remember that every person is different, and you can work with your cancer care team to find the best action to take based on your own situation.
Here are some thoughts from experts about managing distress that include tips that might be helpful (the Do’s) and some actions that could be harmful (the Don’ts).
Finding and going to a support group can help ease feelings of distress by offering support and education for patients and families, and by helping to find community resources. If a support group is not available or does not appeal to someone, a social worker may be able to help find other options. Sometimes group or individual counseling may be a good option, depending on the problem or problems that are most likely causing the feelings of distress. Support groups or counseling may help with:
Sometimes having cancer affects your day-to-day needs. These are common, practical problems that a social worker can help you and your family or loved ones manage. They may be able to link people to community agencies, teach
problem-solving approaches, help get needed care, and offer education and support group sessions. Some practical problems they can help with include:
Therapies and activities that help you relax are often helpful easing some forms of distress. These might include relaxation exercises, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, massage, and guided imagery. Creative therapies like art, dance, and music have also been shown to be helpful for people in some stressful situations. Animal assisted therapy (AAT), also known as pet therapy, involves spending time with therapy animals, is another option that some people might find interesting and worthwhile.
In a time of crisis, many people prefer to talk with a person from their spiritual or religious group. Today, many clergy have training in pastoral counseling for people with cancer. They’re often available to the cancer care team and will see patients who don’t have their own clergy or religious counselor. Pastoral services are important because there can be different times during a person's cancer journey when a crisis might lead to questioning their faith or needing to rely on it more.
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, but even light exercise can be helpful in staying as healthy as possible. For instance, walking is a good way to get started and a good way to keep moving when you’re 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 make a plan 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.
Mental health services are used to evaluate and treat distress that’s moderate to severe. This type of distress may be caused by other emotional or psychiatric problems the person had before cancer was found. Some problems that can make it harder to cope and may be worsened by the distress of cancer include:
Mental health professionals use a range of counseling and therapy approaches to help you cope. They often start by helping you figure out what has worked well for you in the past. They will respect your coping style and try to help you strengthen it. They can help you understand how past problems or experiences may be making it harder to deal with cancer. They may also teach you techniques like relaxation and meditation to help control distress.
Sometimes a drug is needed to reduce distress related to cancer, or distress caused by a medicine to treat cancer or another serious symptom. For example, steroids (like prednisone or Decadron®) may cause mood swings. Opioid pain medicines (like morphine or fentanyl) in higher doses can cause confused thinking. Medicines may be needed to counter these symptoms.
You can work with your cancer care team and a mental health professional to decide if medication might be helpful. Sometimes medicines to treat depression (anti-depressants) or to treat anxiety (anti-anxiety medicines) are options that may reduce distress and help with poor sleep and appetite.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Last Revised: February 3, 2020