Coping With Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on January 20, 2022
6 min read

After receiving a diagnosis of cancer, it is normal to feel overwhelmed and stressed. Feelings of uncertainty about your future and financial concerns can trigger a number of different reactions, including grief. You may find yourself having trouble sleeping at night, your body aches, your head hurts, and you just feel exhausted.

There are many ways to cope with the stress and fear associated with cancer. With education and supportive care, you will be able to deal with the diagnosis and treatment of your cancer. Here are some tips that may help, but it is also important to talk to a member of your cancer care team about how you are feeling.

When you are facing cancer, stress can build up and affect how you feel about life. Prolonged stress can lead to frustration, anger, hopelessness, and at times, depression. The person with cancer is not the only one affected. Family members also are influenced by the ongoing health changes of a loved one with cancer.

The most important step you can take is to seek help as soon as you feel less able to cope with cancer. Taking action early will enable you to understand and deal with the many effects of your illness. Learning to manage stress will help you maintain a positive physical, emotional, and spiritual outlook.

Here are some tips for reducing stress:

  • Keep a positive attitude.
  • Accept that there are events you cannot control.
  • Be assertive instead of aggressive. "Assert" your feelings, opinions, or beliefs instead of becoming angry, combative, or passive.
  • Learn to relax.
  • Exercise regularly. Your body can fight stress better when you are physically fit.
  • Eat well-balanced meals.
  • Rest and sleep. Your body needs time to recover from stressful events.
  • Don't rely on alcohol or drugs to reduce stress.

There are a number of exercises you can do to relax -- breathing, muscle and mind relaxation, and listening to music are just a few ideas. First, be sure that you have a quiet, distraction-free location. Try to find a comfortable body position. Sit or recline on a chair or sofa. Also, have a good state of mind -- try to block out worries and troubling thoughts.

  • Two-minute relaxation. Switch your thoughts to yourself and your breathing. Take a few deep breaths, exhaling slowly. Mentally scan your body. Notice areas that feel tense or cramped. Loosen up these areas, letting go of as much tension as you can. Rotate your head in a smooth, circular motion once or twice. (If any movement causes pain, stop immediately.) Roll your shoulders forward and backward several times. Let all of your muscles completely relax. Recall a pleasant thought for a few seconds. Take another deep breath and exhale slowly.
  • Mind relaxation. Close your eyes. Breathe normally through your nose. As you exhale, silently say to yourself the word "one," a short word such as "peaceful," or a short phrase such as "I feel quiet." Continue for 10 minutes. If your mind wanders, gently remind yourself to think about your breathing and your chosen word or phrase. Let your breathing become slow and steady.
  • Deep breathing relaxation. Imagine a spot just below your navel. Breathe into that spot and fill your belly with air. Let the air fill you from the belly up, then let it out, like deflating a balloon. With every long, slow breath out, you should feel more relaxed.
  • Don't be afraid to ask your doctor, nurse, or other health care provider to repeat and explain any instructions or medical terms that you don't understand. They should be available to answer your questions and address your concerns.
  • Make use of resources and support services offered by your hospital and in the community. Learning more about your disease will help you feel more comfortable with your treatment.
  • Ask your family and friends to help you sort through the information you receive.
  • Talk with other patients and families about cancer and its treatment.

There are many resources available to provide support for cancer patients and their families. Among them are:

Patient navigators and Social workers.  Patient navigators and social workers are available to you and your family to discuss any concerns you may have about your diagnosis and treatment or your personal situation. They can provide education, counseling regarding lifestyle changes, and referrals to community or national agencies and support groups. They can also help your family find temporary lodging, provide information about community resources, and help you with other needs.

Individual counseling. Sometimes, people have problems that are better addressed in a one-on-one environment. By participating in individual counseling sessions, you may more effectively express sensitive or private feelings you have about your illness and its impact on your lifestyle and relationships.

Counseling services can help cancer patients and families:

  • Discuss issues of concern
  • Develop and enhance coping abilities
  • Gain a sense of control
  • Enjoy a quality of life

In addition, mental health care providers are available to create a treatment plan to meet your specific needs. Strategies can be designed to help you regain a sense of control over your life and improve your quality of life -- something everyone deserves. At times, if depression is present, medications other than those treating your cancer may be prescribed.

Support groups. Participating in a support group can be a very useful sharing experience. They provide an environment in which you can learn new ways of dealing with your illness from others who are facing your same challenges. They can sometimes explain things differently than your doctors. You also may want to share approaches you have discovered. You will gain strength in knowing that you are not facing hardships alone.

Remember that others may share information or experiences that do not apply to you. Never replace your doctor's advice with that of another patient.

Other services. The American Cancer Society offers a variety of services and referrals to resources in your area to help cancer patients. Call 800-227-2345 for more information. 

While no one likes to think about their own disability or mortality, it is something that should be considered by everyone -- not just by those facing a serious illness like cancer. You should think about advance directives. These are special documents that describe your wishes regarding your medical care, and include the following:

  • Living will. This document exercises your right to accept or refuse medical treatment that artificially prolongs your life. The living will provides clear instructions regarding your choice of extended medical care. It is prepared when you are fully competent, in case you become unable to make such decisions at a later time. Living will requirements differ from state to state, so be aware of your state’s requirements. Make sure you understand whether your wishes can be overrode or revoked.
  • Durable power of attorney for health care. This is a document in which you appoint a person to speak on your behalf if you should become incapable of expressing medical treatment preferences. An attorney should create this document so that it conforms to state laws and other legal regulations. This cannot cannot be ignored by a physician and can only be revoked by yourself or your designee.

In addition, consider writing a will to ensure that those who survive you will know how to carry out your wishes. This document should be prepared with an attorney.