Staying Headstrong During Your Fight With Cancer

If you've recently been diagnosed with cancer, you may be feeling stressed and anxious about the future. Kevin Stein, PhD, managing director of the Behavioral Research Center for the American Cancer Society says it's common to be overwhelmed with the process of working with your doctor to determine what course of treatment to take. Additionally, not knowing what to expect and feeling like you have no control can be even more upsetting.

The good news is that once you make some decisions and have a treatment plan in place, you're likely to feel better mentally, he says. Even in cases where the prognosis is poor, Stein points out that cancer patients often report feeling like a weight is lifted once they've completed their research and determined a plan.

Coping Post Cancer

Even after a plan is in place and treatment has started, Stein say there may still be days when you are overwhelmed. Completing treatment—and hopefully getting your cancer in remission—is an important milestone but you could still face additional stress. You may be distraught about any pain and suffering you experienced and you may be worried that the cancer could reoccur. These are normal reactions according to Stein and can controlled with some effort.

Here, his suggestions for taking care of your mental health:

  • Develop a good social support system. Stein says that cancer survivors should seek help when they need it. Expressing your needs clearly, and knowing which person to assign to each task, will net the best results and leave you feeling less lonely. Plus, providing an avenue for those who care about you to contribute in a way that lightens your load is also a gift for them.
  • Reframe negative thoughts into positive ones. While this takes a little work, forcing yourself to find the good in your situation, can change your perspective and transform you to a better mental state. Think of the important conversations you may have had or relationships you forged during this time. Perhaps you gained some new insight into yourself.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Massage, meditation, yoga, guided imagery, and deep breathing exercises can help you relax and clear your head.
  • Engage in regular exercise. Moving is good for your health and helps keep a positive attitude.
  • Communicate with your doctor. Being more focused on your physical health may make her forget to ask how you're doing emotionally. It's important to be proactive in telling the doctor if you are depressed or anxious so she can help you figure out how to address the problem. She might also refer you to a therapist or support group for extra help.

Keeping Perspective

When you're feeling sad, anxious, or overwhelmed, Stein says that it can help to think of the big picture, since cure rates for cancer are increasing every year and more people today are not only surviving, but also thriving, after treatment.

"The data really shows that by about two years after diagnosis, most cancer survivors are doing as well or better in terms of their quality of life than the general population," Stein explains. This is because many cancer survivors find that their diagnosis prompts them to take better care of themselves, re-evaluate their priorities, and find a healthier work and family balance. Many also say they find joy in life's little pleasures that may have gone unnoticed before.

Learn More

For more information about coping with cancer, visit the American Cancer Society's website. For ACS resources specifically for post-treatment survivors, click here.

Kevin Stein, PhD, reviewed this article.


Kevin Stein, PhD, managing director of the Behavioral Research Center for the American
Cancer Society. Phone interview, 22 October 2013.