Coping with Cancer

Cancer is a life-changing event, for you, and for the people close to you. It affects all aspects of your life including physical, emotional, mental, financial, social, family and spiritual structures.

Many emotions may follow a diagnosis of cancer. They sometimes follow a pattern but can occur at different times for different people: shock and disbelief, denial, guilt, anger, sadness and depression, fear and dependency. These emotions will affect you and affect your relationships with others. You may also have difficulty discussing your feelings with your family, friends and doctors. Understand these emotions and recognize that they are normal and natural.

Your cancer experience is unique. It cannot be compared to anyone else’s. How you dealt with crises in the past will determine how you cope with your cancer. Someone who deals passively with situations might find they do that with their cancer. This could hamper their ability to cope. A person with a pro-active style will strive for control. After the initial avoidance behaviour they will take responsibility for what happens in their lives.

You, and your family, will have your own reactions and differing needs but please remember: people who seek support, either individually or within groups, generally cope better.

When you are first diagnosed with cancer you will feel a whirlwind of emotions. Deal with them as they occur. If you remain caught in an emotion it can affect your psychological state and slow down your healing process.

Shock and disbelief are often the first emotions felt. “Cancer is going to strike someone else NOT ME!” Many people see it as a fatal disease, even though the illness can be managed and treated. Disbelief is understandable and serves a useful purpose. It provides a calming, numbing effect that softens the blow of the diagnosis. This gives you a chance to start adjusting to this major change in your life.

When you are in shock you are unable to concentrate and to take in all the relevant facts and information. Don’t overreact but assure yourself of the facts. Get your doctor to repeat the information with someone else present. Give yourself time to adjust to your diagnosis. Shock is natural under these circumstances, you should not judge yourself.

You may soon move on to denial. This is an inability to believe and acknowledge that you have cancer. Often expressed as “No! It can’t be true!” Denial works as a buffer. It allows you time to accept your diagnosis. It can also cause withdrawal, isolation and mood swings. If it goes on for too long you will delay facing up to the reality. You might even postpone treatment and that could affect your prognosis.

Accept that denial is a normal reaction to a cancer diagnosis. Allow yourself the mood fluctuations that swing from hope to despair. It takes time for the reality to sink in. Lack of communication at this time will reinforce your feelings of isolation and can cause breakdowns in important relationships. Open communication and support between family and friends is necessary.

Be gentle with yourself and those who love you during these times. And – no matter what – do not make any rash decisions. Good luck and let’s chat more in the next issue.

When should I seek medical help?

If any of the following situations last more than 6 weeks:

  • You lose interest in things that used to give you pleasure
  • You sleep too much or too little
  • You lose your appetite
  • You feel constantly tired
  • You lose the ability to think clearly or concentrate
  • You feel guilty or worthless

This is an excerpt from the Cancer Coping Kit, a free audio programme to help people overcome the challenges of a cancer diagnosis. To order your free copy of the Cancer Coping Kit contact Bev du Toit on 073 235 1571. The Cancer Coping Kit is available in English, Afrikaans, isiZulu and seSotho.

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