Receiving a Cancer Diagnosis – Coping with a cancer diagnosis
Getting diagnosed with cancer can be a life-altering experience, hence it can (and often will) lead to crises. In general, a crisis can be described as a state in which the individual face “an obstacle that is, for a time, insurmountable by the use of customary methods of problem-solving” (Caplan, 1961). Thus, in order to manage such a thing as a cancer diagnosis, we may need to cope with it in ways we´re not used to. With that said, Dag Härdfeldt, Licensed Psychologist, and Linda Karlsson, Licensed Psychologist, both from KRY LIVI Psychology Department have shared some practical tips and guidelines that have been proven useful when coping with a cancer diagnosis.
1) Focus on the basics!
Cancer can be a taxing ordeal, both for the mind and for the body. The body must devote resources to manage the cancer and therefore it is of importance that one manages the body properly. Fatigue is one of the most common, and distressing, symptoms of cancer, but it can be alleviated to a certain degree by proper maintenance of one’s basic needs, such as sleep, warmth, comfort, rest and diet. Think of it like this; our needs can be structured into a sort of hierarchy where “higher needs” (such as social status and self-actualization) are dependent on “lower” needs. Since cancer attacks our “lower” needs, such as a healthy body – we need to pay these needs extra care. Eat, drink, sleep, rest, take your medicine, get sunlight, take small walks, indulge in simple pleasures. Physical exercise has also been proven to significantly alleviate cancer-related fatigue (1).
2) Worry – in moderation!
When it comes to cancer, “Don´t worry about it” is not the way to go. If used properly, worry can be an invaluable tool. It allows us to foresee and manage problems in the future, and since a diagnosis comes with a plethora of potential problems, you will need your worry. But worry has its limitations, you´ll need other tools as well, such as hope. Hope – in contrast to worry – identifies possibilities. Visions of a successful treatment, a new direction in life, a step away from previous errors. You might find that worrying comes more easily, this is because the brain is inclined to paint more vivid pictures when it comes to bad things, than good things. Thus, maintaining a proper balance usually means limiting your time spent worrying and increasing your time spent hoping (2).
3) Know your ‘enemy’!
A diagnosis of cancer may come as an uncomfortable truth. Since our natural instinct is to avoid uncomfortable things, we may feel inclined to avoid information about our diagnosis. The avoidance can be seen as an attempt to strip the diagnosis of its power (3). The problem with this is that although avoidance may reduce unwelcomed emotions in the short-term, the long-term consequence tends to be detrimental. Knowing less means a higher degree of uncertainty, and uncertainty in itself will – in the end – always be more taxing for the mind than certainty, even though that certainty might be a painful one. You don’t need to become an expert, in fact – reading too much about it can be detrimental too, but educate yourself about your condition to such a degree, that you know what you are up against (4).
4) Don´t stop doing the things you love to do!
A diagnosis of cancer may present a new set of challenges, things that were easy prior to the disease might suddenly become difficult. Cancer usually presents two types of challenges. Primary challenges – these include the immediate struggle with symptoms such as pain and fatigue. Secondary challenges involve living your life to the fullest, within the boundaries of your symptoms. Research has shown that people focusing more on secondary challenges rather than primary – usually report higher quality of life. In practice, this means not giving up on the things that you like to do, even though you may not be able to do them exactly in the same way as you used to. You might not be able to run a marathon, but that doesn’t hinder you from taking a walk (5).
5) Figure it out!
One of the most difficult aspects of getting diagnosed with cancer can be to make sense of it all. How does one wrap your head around something that by all accounts just seems to be unnecessary, cruel and destructive? Well, research has shown that the probability of successfully managing a crisis has been linked to our ability to find and/or create a meaning out of it (6). A diagnosis may tell you something about how you´ve been living your life so far or how you would like to live the rest of it. “Why?” “How?” And “What now?” are common questions – allow your mind to process these, but also be wary, excessive rumination might turn into unconstructive cogitation. If this is the case, a psychologist can offer strategies to handle your thoughts more constructively.
In the end – these guidelines won´t fix the problem. They won’t take away the pain, the sorrow, the confusion and the fear of it all. Nor will it cure cancer. But they can, to a certain degree, aid you in your fight against cancer, they can help you cope with a cancer diagnosis, and they can improve your ability to make the best with the hand you were dealt.
(Note: Always consult with your current physician – before implementing any lifestyle-changes)
Dag Härdfeldt. Licensed Psychologist.
Linda Karlsson. Licensed Psychologist.
KRY LIVI Psychology Department.
1. Mock et al, (2001). Fatigue and Quality of Life Outcomes of Exercise During Cancer Treatment. Cancer Practice, 9: 119-127. doi:10.1046/j.1523-5394.2001.009003119.x
2. Leahy, R. L. (2006). The Worry Cure. Stop Worrying and Start Living. Hachette. London.
3. Leydon et al, (2000). Cancer patients’ information needs and information seeking behaviour: in depth interview study. BMJ 2000; 320 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.320.7239.909
4. Salters-Pedneault et al, (2004). The role of avoidance of emotional material in the anxiety disorders. Applied and Preventive Psychology, Volume 11, Issue 2, p95-114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appsy.2004.09.001
5. Hopko et al, (2011). Brief behavioral activation and problem-solving therapy for depressed breast cancer patients: Randomized trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79(6), 834–849. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025450
6. Angel, B. & Hjern, A. (2004). Att möta flyktingar. (2. ed.) Lund: Studentlitteratur
The information shared does not constitute a medical consultation and is not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with your doctor or other qualified health provider for questions regarding a medical condition, especially during the active period of Corona / Covid19. Please do not disregard professional health provider advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read here. In the event of a medical emergency, call a doctor, 112 or 911 immediately.