Contributor: Josette Snyder, MSN, APRN, AOCN
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Many of our patients are living full, busy lives when they receive a cancer diagnosis. They already deal with some level of stress. But a serious illness such as cancer exerts an unfamiliar kind of stress for which most of us are not prepared. Serious illness is among the most stressful of life events.
It may bring some comfort to know that many others have traveled the same path as you. Also, know that there is help and relief for some of the tension and feelings you are experiencing.
You might not know you are under stress. So it’s important to pay attention to your body and the cues it might be sending to you. Tight muscles, aching neck, clenched teeth, irritability – stress really does show itself physically.
Here are some ways you can lower the stressful feelings as you move through cancer treatment:
The most common misstep we see is when people who have cancer don’t communicate their needs or their feelings. There’s a committee meeting going on in your head, but nothing is getting done. So be honest and open with your family and friends. Tell them what you need, even if it’s a wish for solitude and rest.
The same goes for your doctors, nurses, social worker and other health care providers. They have a deep and broad understanding of cancer treatment and are valuable sources of practical information and perspective. Also, find someone in your circle that you can trust. Allow yourself to vent with your confidante. Sometimes just airing your thoughts can help you arrive at a solution or new perspective.
Allow yourself to rely on others
Many times, people want to remain strong and keep things as they were before the diagnosis. This is particularly hard for men. But, difficult as it may seem, this is a time for you to let people take care of you. Ask yourself: If your friend was the patient, wouldn’t you want to show your concern by helping in some way? You would welcome the opportunity to help. So let people do things for you and take comfort in the knowledge that you’re not alone.
Let it go
If you find yourself worrying, try to find a quiet place in your mind where you can calmly ask yourself: Can I control this? If the answer is no, your best choice is to try to let it go.
Know where your head is at
When things feel as though they are spiraling out of control, stop and assess where you are emotionally. Maybe it’s been a long, challenging day and you are out of mental strength. Realizing that may help you maintain your emotional balance. You might decide to halt any more activity, decision-making or stimulation and take some time to rest. Then you can come back when you feel stronger and have the mental and emotional resources to tackle whatever’s in front of you. It’s OK to say, I’ve had enough for now.
One easy way to cut down on unnecessary stress is to get organized and prepare for your medical appointments. Make sure you have transportation arrangements made well ahead of time. Carry – or ask your spouse or partner to carry – a calendar to jot down your appointments when you make them. This way, you can avoid inadvertent scheduling conflicts like a chemotherapy treatment on the day your grandson usually comes to visit.
Also, consider making a practice run before your first visit to a new doctor so surprises and delays will be at a minimum. You might ask your nurse to visit the chemotherapy treatment suite before your initial appointment.
Some cancer centers have a chemotherapy education class that may answer some of your questions. Controlling the things you can, preparing for scheduled events and practicing can help to reduce the stress of this unfamiliar experience.
Cancer treatment is serious, but you don’t have to give every moment of your day over to the disease. Some people find light exercise, like a walk outside, helpful. Exercise helps to release feel-good endorphins and helps you sleep better. Continue to take time for interests such as cooking, woodworking, sewing, or gardening. Or consider starting a new hobby. These creative outlets help to turn our thoughts elsewhere and to experience a sense of joy and accomplishment.
Revisit your spirituality
Many people who have cancer find that revisiting their spiritual or religious beliefs and practices help them to cope with their disease. Revisiting your spirituality might mean reading inspiring stories or poetry, going to services, or simply enjoying and appreciating the out-of-doors. Cancer treatment is a life-changing experience that helps some people to view life in a more positive way.