Lung cancer can be a challenge. But you don’t need to handle it alone. Whether it’s online or in person, it’s important to know you can lean on your friends, family, or others in your cancer community. And don’t forget about your medical care team. They can help you learn about your diagnosis and get the right kind of support.
“If you can dream of what might make you feel better, it probably exists,” says Tara Sanft, MD, a medical oncologist and chief patient experience officer at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center. “We do this all day every day.
"If you think you need something different, we probably know how to help.”
You may wonder if social support really matters. Sanft thinks so.
“We know that having good relationships with your doctors, your health care team, and your support networks improve adherence to treatments, which leads to better outcomes and better health,” Sanft says.
Find What Works for You
There’s no right or wrong way to reach out for support, says Tim Pearman, PhD, director of supportive oncology for the Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center. Pearman says what’s important is finding a healthy outlet to share your fears and anxieties, whether it's your friends, a cancer peer, your therapist, or someone else you trust.
Group therapy wasn’t a good fit for Irene Honeycutt, 68, who found out she had stage IV metastatic NSCLC in 2017. Counseling with Pearman worked for her.
“The one-on-one thing was a perfect match for me,” Honeycutt says. “I was so angry, and I felt like I needed somebody who understood my anger, but would help me get past it. And he’s done that.”
Honeycutt used to worry about dealing with cancer “incorrectly.” For starters, she wasn’t a big fan of positive thinking. And meditation never stuck. But after she started counseling, she gained confidence about her choices.
“I could rant and rave about how unfair everything is,” Honeycutt says. “And that helped me a great deal, just to know that no matter how I was handling it, that was OK.”
Let Your Loved Ones In
If you’re scared or sick, you may want to put on a brave face for friends and family. But it’s not easy to hide parts of your life from those closest to you. It can make you lonely, says Christina Bestvina, MD, a thoracic oncologist at the University of Chicago.
If you have a loved one with cancer, Bestvina urges you to speak up about your support. And if you have cancer, when your family speaks up, try to accept that help.
“Almost all family members are jumping at the chance to express that this is the time they want to care for mom [or dad],” Bestvina says.
Honeycutt doesn’t tell everyone about her cancer. But her close family knows. And when she feels down, they get together for dinners or visits. Her daughter even moved from a different state to live near her.
“She’s my only child, and we’ve been able to spend time together that we never would have had,” says Honeycutt, who adds that she has a new grandchild.
“It’s the greatest gift she could have given me.”
Get Help From Your Medical Care Team
Your social worker knows how to guide you through all parts of your diagnosis, says Bonnie Indeck, LCSW, manager of oncology social work at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center.
They can tell you all of your support options. And they hope to boost your quality of life along the way, Indeck says.
Your social worker will ask you a lot of questions. The answers will help them learn what works for you. You can try things like:
- Counseling or group support
- Chair yoga
- Online bingo
- Art or sound therapy
- Tai chi
- Sewing or cooking
- A book club
You can also meet with a cancer-focused psychologist or psychiatrist. You might actually find it easier to talk to someone who isn’t a loved one. “Having a resource outside of the family is very valuable,” Bestvina says.
Connect With Your Cancer Peers
In 2019, Lin McTeague, 58, learned she had stage IV metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, a form of lung cancer. In the beginning, she leaned heavily on her husband, children, friends, and faith.
“Everyone was so supportive,” McTeague says.
But now she likes to connect with other people who have cancer, no matter what kind they have. She found peers through Facebook groups and the Cancer Support Community website. She also joined her local branch of Gilda’s Club. That's a nationwide support group for people with cancer and their families founded by, among others, the late comedienne Gilda Radner.
“I wanted to find people like me,” McTeague says. “It’s been such a blessing.”
If you’d like to find or become a peer mentor -- that’s someone who’s going through cancer in a similar way as you -- ask your social worker or your patient navigator. There's support available for caregivers, too.
Find Positive Distractions
When you feel really anxious or overwhelmed, Pearman says it’s OK to “put a lid” on those emotions for a bit. Take some time to do something unrelated to cancer, like:
- Watch a movie.
- Read a book.
- Hang out with loved ones.
McTeague says she can’t live without her daily walks and podcasts. “I have two dogs and I walk them all the time,” she says. “It’s something I do every single day, and the fresh air is amazing.”
She’s also tried cooking classes, Zumba, and yoga, all with her cancer support community.
Honeycutt, who also takes part in Gilda’s Club in Chicago, sometimes meets up with other people who have cancer. But “no one talks about their illness,” she says. Instead, they hang out and do crafts. Her specialty is knitting.
McTeague encourages anyone with cancer to find someone to talk to. For her, sometimes that’s the physician's assistant she chats with before her chemo treatment.
“When I meet with her, I don’t feel rushed,” McTeague says. “She just lets me talk, which is really nice. Sometimes we have a great time. Sometimes I’m scared. But whatever I am in that moment, it’s OK. I can be whoever I am.”
Other Cancer Community Resources
There are a lot of local and national resources out there. You can tap into them for emotional, financial, or social support. And you can find programs for both you and your loved ones. You may want to search online for groups near you, especially if you don’t live in a big city.
“Sometimes the best way to find support is the internet,” Pearman says. “If you [search] ‘cancer support’ and your area, you’ll get a pretty decent list.”
Don’t be shy about asking your medical care team for doctor-approved resources. In the meantime, you may want you to check out some national sources like the:
- American Cancer Society
- National Cancer Institute
- American Lung Association
- Imerman Angels
- Cancer Support Community