Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When You Have Cancer: Tips for Coping (part 1)

266/365 - And It Could Rain For Days And Then ...Image by helgasms! via Flickr

A friend of a friend just received bad news: her breast cancer came back. More tests are needed before surgery and other treatments can begin. So for now, a network of friend responds to requests for positive thoughts and healing energy while the waiting begins...

This got me thinking about the practical side of being a cancer patient. I know it's been 21 years since my cancer, but an experience like that really stays with you. I always go out of my way to offer encouragement, hope and practical suggestions to newly diagnosed cancer patients and it struck me yesterday that I needed to write these suggestions down. So here are some of my suggestions for coping with cancer:

  • Being diagnosed with cancer, or finding out the cancer has returned, is a huge, life-changing event. Between the medical tests, procedures, surgery and treatment, it can feel like getting sucked up into a tornado. Occasionally, you need to step back from the tornado and find some quiet, peaceful time for yourself.
  • Having cancer brings up a lot of feelings and it is important to really try and feel every one of them in the moment. This may be hard to do when the people around you want you to have a "positive attitude" and "be a fighter." It may be scary to feel helpless, fearful, angry and sad, but these feelings don't last for long when you have the courage to face them.
  • Don't get hung up on the statistics. It's been quite a while since I took a statistics course, but this I remember: statistics describe what happened in the past. With most statistics, there is a time lag between when the data was collected and when the statistics are reported, anywhere from a few months to a few years. So what was true in the past is not necessarily what is true right now, in the present. Use the statistics you are presented with as an estimate of the size of the fight ahead of you. Then focus your mind on the outcome you want.
  • If you are newly diagnosed, think twice before you head to the Internet and start to Google information about your type of cancer: you can easily get overwhelmed! Initially, stick to websites like the American Cancer Society which are specifically designed for the lay person or ask a friend or family member who is good at Internet research to wade through the plethora of information for you. Ask for and pick up pamphlets and brochures in your doctor's office to get you started learning about your cancer and its treatment.
  • Decide how much information you want from your medical team and let them know. Some patients want just the facts, others want details and copies of all their test results. If the amount of information you want differs from the amount of information your family wants, consider giving your permission to your medical team to speak to family members without you present.
  • Don't forget you have the right to a second opinion. If you are going to invest the time and energy into a second opinion, consider getting it from an institution that conducts a large number of clinical trials, like a university cancer center or The City of Hope.
  • During cancer treatment, you want to be proactive and promptly report any new symptoms that develop to your doctor. You also want to let your doctor know of any treatment side-effects. Oncology is one field of medicine that excels at helping patient manage their treatment side-effects, so do not suffer unnecessarily.
  • Take advantage of any support options available to you. This can range from chatting to other cancer patients in the waiting room, talking to family and friends who are cancer survivors, using Internet chat rooms, forums and list servs to telephone and in-person support groups. Being with fellow cancer patients and survivors provides the opportunity to share ideas, coping strategies, thoughts and feelings with other people who really know what you are going through. Your fellow cancer patients and survivors give you a special kind of support you can get no where else.
  • Ask for help. Cancer treatment is difficult and there are times when you will need other people to help you get through it. Anticipate that you (and your spouse) may need help with grocery shopping, driving to appointments, picking up the kids from school, cleaning the house, etc. Put the word out early that you might need some help and see who is available ahead of time.
  • Make a call to your local branch of the American Cancer Society and ask about the local programs and services they provide. There may be volunteers able to help with transportation to and from your chemotherapy and radiation treatments, support groups, the Look Good ... Feel Better and other resources available to you.

I'm just getting started here, so tomorrow I'll return with more suggestions. I can see that this is going to be a series of articles and I promise I'll devote a post to some resources as well. In the meantime, if you have any comments, questions or suggestions you want to share, please leave a comment below.

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