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Cancer Diagnosis: Tips for Coping

cancer survivor

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, knowing what to expect and making plans on how to proceed can help make this stressful time manageable. Our oncology social workers, Brittany Greig and Nancy Yeisley, share some helpful tips.

Learning that you have cancer is a difficult experience. After your diagnosis, you may feel anxious, afraid or overwhelmed and wonder how you can cope in the days ahead. Here are 11 suggestions for coping with a cancer diagnosis.

Get the Facts

Try to obtain as much basic, useful information about your cancer diagnosis as you need so you can make decisions about your care.

Write down your questions and concerns beforehand and bring them with you. “Your doctors may not have all the answers at your first oncology appointment,” says Greig. “Sometimes they need to do more tests to get all the details before developing a treatment plan.”

Greig and Yeisley encourage patients to consider asking the following:

  • What kind of cancer do I have?
  • Where is the cancer?
  • Has it spread?
  • How can my cancer be treated?
  • What is the chance that my cancer can be cured?
  • What other tests or procedures do I need?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • How will the treatment benefit me?
  • What can I expect during treatment?
  • What are the side effects of the treatment?
  • When should I call the doctor?
  • What can I do to prevent my cancer from recurring?
  • How likely are my children or other family members to get cancer? (Your doctor can connect you with a Genetic Counselor at the Community Cancer Center.)

Bring a family member or friend with you to your first few appointments to help you remember everything you hear.

You might also want to consider how much you want to know about your cancer. Some people want all the facts and details, so they can be very involved in the decision-making process. Others prefer to learn the basics and leave details and decisions to their doctors. Think about which approach works best for you. Let your Care Coordinator know what you’d prefer.

Keep Lines of Communication Open

Maintain honest, two-way communication with your family, care team and others during your cancer journey. You may feel isolated if people try to protect you from bad news or if you try to put up a strong front. If you and others express your emotions honestly, you can all gain strength from each other. Greig and Yeisley can help you with talking to your kids or other family members about your diagnosis.

Anticipate Potential Physical Changes

After your cancer diagnosis and before you begin treatment is the best time to plan for changes. Prepare yourself now so that you’ll be better able to cope later.

Ask your doctor what changes to anticipate. If drugs may cause hair loss, Strands of Strength, a community partner of the Community Cancer Center, can provide wig vouchers and wig stands.

Cancer support groups may be particularly helpful and can provide tips for you and your loved ones. There are many support services at the Community Cancer Center that bring patients and their family together. Check out our calendar for a schedule of events.

Also consider how treatment will impact your day-to-day life. Ask your doctor if you can expect to continue your normal routine. You may need to spend some time in the hospital or have frequent medical appointments. If your treatment will require a leave of absence from your normal duties, make arrangements for this.

Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

This can help to improve your energy level. Choose a healthy diet consisting of a variety of foods and get adequate rest in order to help manage the stress and fatigue of the cancer and its treatment. Beth Beckett and Mary Beth Peiffer, oncology dietitians, are available to meet if you would like help creating a plan to meet your nutrition needs.

Exercise and participating in enjoyable activities can also help. Recent data suggests that people who get regular exercise during treatment not only cope better, but also may live longer. Matt Schmitz, cancer exercise specialist, is available to meet with you to create an individualized exercise plan. Also, check out our group exercise classes here.

Review Goals and Priorities

Determine what’s most important in your life. Find time for these activities that give you the most meaning.

If needed, try to find a new openness with loved ones. Share your thoughts and feelings with them. Cancer affects all your relationships. Communication can help reduce the anxiety and fear that cancer can cause.

Try to Maintain Your Normal Lifestyle

Maintain your normal lifestyle, but be open to modifying it as needed. Take things one day at a time. It’s easy to overlook this simple strategy during stressful times. When the future is uncertain, organizing and planning may suddenly seem overwhelming.

Consider How Your Diagnosis Will Impact Your Finances

There may be unexpected financial burdens that come about due to your diagnosis. Your treatment may require time away from work or extended time away from home. Consider the additional costs of medications, medical devices and traveling for treatment.

Talk with your Oncology Social Worker about terms related to work such as FMLA, short-term or long-term disability and how to talk to your employer. You can also ask about financial counselor and financial support programs available at the Community Cancer Center.

Other questions you may consider asking:

  • Will I have to take time away from work?
  • Will my friends and family need to take time away from work to be with me?
  • Will my insurance pay for these treatments?
  • Will my insurance cover the cost of medications?
  • How much will my out-of-pocket costs be?
  • If insurance won’t pay for my treatment, are there assistance programs that can help?
  • Do I qualify for disability benefits?
  • How does my diagnosis affect my life insurance?

Talk to Other People with Cancer

Sometimes it will feel as if people who haven’t experienced a cancer diagnosis can’t fully understand how you’re feeling. It may help to talk to people who have been in your situation. Other cancer survivors can share their experiences and give you insight into what you can expect during treatment.

You may have a friend or family member who has had cancer. Or you can connect with other cancer survivors through one of our support groups. You can also contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society. Online message boards also bring cancer survivors together. Start with the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Survivors Network.

Fight Stigmas

Some old stigmas associated with cancer still exist. Your friends may wonder if your cancer is contagious. Co-workers may doubt you’re healthy enough to do your job, and some may withdraw for fear of saying the wrong thing. Many people will have questions and concerns.

Determine how you’ll deal with others’ behaviors toward you. By and large, others will take their cues from you. Remind friends that even if cancer has been a frightening part of your life, it shouldn’t make them afraid to be around you. If you are still struggling with stigmas related to your cancer, Brittany and Nancy can help.

Develop Your Own Coping Strategy

Just as each person’s cancer treatment is individualized, so is the coping strategy. Ideas to try:

  • Practice relaxation techniques.
  • Share your feelings honestly with family, friends, a spiritual adviser or a counselor.
  • Keep a journal to help organize your thoughts.
  • When faced with a difficult decision, list the pros and cons for each choice.
  • Find a source of spiritual support.
  • Set aside time to be alone.
  • Remain involved with work and leisure activities as much as you can.

What comforted you through rough times before your cancer diagnosis is likely to help ease your worries now, whether that’s a close friend, religious leader or a favorite activity that recharges you. Turn to these comforts now, but also be open to trying new coping strategies.

If you have questions about coping or anything else related to your cancer diagnosis, call the Community Cancer Center at (319) 558-4876.

Brittany Greig
Nancy Yeisley

Brittany Greig

Nancy Yeisley

Britany and Nancy are Oncology Social Workers at the Helen G. Nassif Community Cancer Center.


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