Waiting for your diagnosis can cause emotional anguish. Dr Michelle King offers simple ways to lessen the distress in this waiting period.
Hearing that you might have cancer causes anxiety and fear in almost everyone. Even if you’re told that statistically the chances of you having a good outcome are high, this knowledge doesn’t help much. It’s human nature to worry and fear something that could potentially be harmful. It’s just the way that our brains are designed to keep us safe from possible danger.
Waiting for your diagnosis can cause emotional distress. This anxiety can build up to the point where your thoughts start to distract you from your day-to-day life. Any type of news that is uncertain and unchangeable has the potential to affect your life in this way.¹ For some of you, the distress while waiting for the diagnosis can actually end up being far worse than the anguish the diagnosis itself causes.²
Examining the facts
In the United States, 70-80% of breast biopsies have a benign or non-invasive outcome.2 This means that the chances of you having a serious outcome is two to three out of 10. Even though this knowledge might not take away the emotional distress of having to wait for your diagnosis, it is worthwhile knowing what your risk is rather than trying to find the answer on Dr Google.
There have been some interesting studies done, looking at how women cope while waiting to get their results. What they have shown is that worrying and stressing about bad news tends to be worse right at the beginning and then again towards the end of the waiting period.3
Ruminating all the time can start to affect the quality of your sleep and start to have a negative effect on your stress hormones.3 Further, it can begin to interfere with your ability to problem solve1 and think critically.2 It can make you forgetful and make you lose confidence in your abilities as well as preventing you from being able to make important decisions.1 Because of this, it’s important to find effective coping mechanisms.
What can you do?
Distract yourself from uncertainty1
Keep yourself busy with something that you find enjoyable that distracts you. Try stay focused and not jump from one thing to another. Don’t turn to self-destructive distractions, such as binge drinking or drug use.
Forcing yourself to be distracted is also not going to help, you can end up worrying more. You need to find something that you really enjoy and where you can get lost in doing it.³ Distracting yourself from negative repetitive thoughts should improve your problem-solving abilities, reduce distress and help you to maintain a positive outlook.
Manage your expectations1
This one is a bit trickier. The research says that you should be optimistic in the beginning of the waiting period but as the date for your follow-up gets closer, you should brace yourself for bad news. In other words, expect for the best initially but as the time nears for your follow-up, plan for the worst.2
Look for a silver lining in all possible outcomes1
Sometimes this can involve a change in expectations. For example, if you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you can plan to be a role model for your daughter, rather than focusing on all the bad things that could happen if you were diagnosed.
Keep perspective regarding the news1
Plan ahead for the bad news.1 Be proactive and prepare yourself for what you and your family will need to do if you receive the news that you have cancer. This will help you build resilience and help you cope better in the long run.
- Sweeny K. Waiting well: Tips for navigating painful uncertainty. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 2012;6(3):258-69.
- Sweeny K, Christianson D, McNeill J. The psychological experience of awaiting breast diagnosis. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 2019;53(7):630-41.
- Rankin K, Walsh LC, Sweeny K. A better distraction: Exploring the benefits of flow during uncertain waiting periods. Emotion. 2019;19(5):818.
MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Michelle King
Dr Michelle King qualified as a psychiatrist in 2007. Since then she has completed post-graduate diplomas in chronic pain management and palliative medicine, both through UCT. She is part of an interdisciplinary pain clinic and palliative care team. Dr King believes in empowering people so that they can take charge of their physical and mental health, and as a result, live their lives to the fullest.
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