Going through cancer is a tough experience for most people, and no two experiences of cancer are identical. The same is true of how people cope with cancer. Many people with cancer find the need to fine-tune their coping skills to help with cancer-related emotions, troubling thoughts, and practical concerns. Research shows that emotions, actions, and thoughts are interrelated — even a small shift in any one of the three can improve coping.*
- Express emotion. It is normal to experience a range of emotions from cancer-related changes. Noticing, naming, and expressing your emotions may be new to you and take some time to develop. You might be tempted to hide your emotions or deny them, but in the long run, this can cause them to bubble up at unexpected times and lead to greater distress overall. Remember that you are not your emotion — you can notice the emotion you’re experiencing, and calmly decide what action to take — if any. Even though it might not feel like it at the moment, emotions pass. You may try imagining a distressing emotion as though it’s a wave crashing against the ocean’s shore — coming and going with the tides and the weather.
- Practice curiosity. Facing new anxieties and worries with curiosity rather than a predetermined vision of an outcome can help soothe distress. Being curious is one solution to coping with unknowns. You can deliberately cultivate curiosity by asking open-ended questions, observing emotions and situations without judgment, and respecting the mysterious nature of what you have yet to know.
- Express gratitude. A gratitude-filled mindset is associated with decreased distress and helps with emotional processing and regulation. Expressing gratitude does not diminish the grief or other difficult emotions — they can exist side by side. Try to take time every day to be thankful; it could be for your family, a friend who is supportive of you, or even a small sign of beauty. Sharing your gratitude with those around you is a way to connect with others and may also bring them some joy.
- Be your full self. For many people, cancer care can overtake various aspects of life. Try to connect with the parts of yourself that exist outside of cancer such as your core beliefs and values. Express all of who you are and encourage others to recognize all aspects of who you are too. At times, the way you express parts of your identity and what is important to you might need to shift or take different forms — allow for that.
- Stay in the moment. Mindfulness is not a special state that you enter, but an awareness of each moment as it occurs. While we can’t control the past or the future, we can allow ourselves to be in the present. We may not like everything about the present, but there are always things to notice (without judgment) about where we are right now. Take time to notice for example what you see, feel, smell, taste and hear right now. Let distressing thoughts and emotions pass without judgment as you do so. To stay in the moment, consider practicing a mindfulness exercise. Learn more here.
- Tame worry. While it is human nature to worry, sometimes worries take on more power than needed. This can be especially true in situations where whatever you are worried about is not in your control. One strategy for managing worry is to schedule worry time, which is setting aside a regular time to worry. Start with 30 minutes. You can worry alone, write in a journal, or talk to a friend or family member. When worries emerge at different times during the day practice delaying them until your worry time.
- Find people’s talents. Friends and family are all unique with different strengths, and not everyone is good at the same kinds of support. Consider these three types of helpers: Do-ers (practical helpers), Listeners (emotional support), and Respite-makers (fun, distraction). List each person in your support network and identify which type of helper they might be (can be more than one!). Understanding each person’s strengths can help you ask the right person for what you need.
- Ask if you can control it. As humans, we are not in control of some parts of our lives: the weather, other people’s behavior, getting cancer, or if a treatment works. Asking yourself whether something you’re anxious or angry about is within your control can help you decide how much energy you spend on a distressing emotion. Recognizing when we can’t control a situation allows us to change our reaction and relationship to the situation even if we still feel the emotion.
- Consider both/and language. Consider language that includes “both/and” rather than “either/or” which can help to reflect complex cancer-related emotions. As humans, we have the capacity to feel more than one feeling and truth at a time. A cancer diagnosis brings complexity: you are rarely completely healthy or completely sick, in control or powerless. You can feel terrified and have hope. When distressing emotions seem to be taking up lots of space, see if you can search for any additional positive emotions alongside them.
- Think about a “cancer break”. Many people find that taking a mental cancer holiday can be important. Some find it helpful to be directive with family or friends that they want a particular gathering to be a “cancer-free” event. It gives them, and you, permission to focus on other things and not talk about cancer. Consider asking for a spontaneous cancer-free night or plan a regular time each day or week for a cancer break.
The tips above are suggestions based on coping skills and techniques that have worked well for other people who are living with cancer. You may need to try out different tips (one at a time, or a few in combination with each other) to see what works well for you and your individual needs. Coping is an ongoing process — a marathon, not a sprint. You may find it easier to cope on some days, and harder on others. Remember, to try to shift cancer-related distress by attending to emotions, thoughts, or actions in different ways.
- Greer Steven. CBT for emotional distress of people with cancer: some personal observations. Psycho-oncology. 2008;17:170–173.
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Reviewed by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board
This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.