Coping with Cancer? Top Ways To More Than Hang In There

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When people are diagnosed with cancer, they are struck with one of the most stressful moments of their lives. Shock, fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, grief, and even guilt are common feelings when needing to face coping with cancer, especially when hearing the news for the first time.

There are so many questions: What are my chances? Will I need surgery? Will my hair fall out with the chemo? Who will take care of my children, or aging parents (or both) during treatment? Can I still go to the gym?  Can I keep my job, and will my insurance cover the extra days off from work?

Thankfully, millions have found ways to turn the tide and use cancer as a catalyst for really focusing on life. Clearly there are challenges – perhaps the deepest challenges one can experience. At the same time, the process can be precious and meaningful with the proper tools and mindset.

As a psychologist, I focus on helping people recognize what they are feeling, what they want in life, and how to optimize their experience towards getting what they want when coping with cancer. This strategy is even more important when facing a life threatening illness, when living life has to remain the focus in every way.

From a psychological perspective, here are the top ways to ensure as positive an experience as possible for coping with cancer: 

  • Manage the grief and shock. Working through the grieving process about the diagnosis is a critical first step. The two ideal ways to offset trauma symptoms are to talk, talk, talk about your feelings, and to write out your feelings. Pen to paper – not a keyboard and screen. Make a list of your feelings, and describe in detail why you feel each feeling. Then, make a separate list of things that make you happy which you’d like to do while coping with cancer. Seek help if you don’t feel better after 6 weeks – depression is normal. About a quarter of cancer patients suffer depression, yet only 5% get treatment.
  • Stay focused on life and living. Focus on life-giving forces, namely, those that bring you comfort and joy. By controlling where you put your attention, you can affect your overall perspective. After all, while your chances of terminal illness might be higher statistically, you never know. Think of how many people die in sudden car accidents daily, versus how many people go into remission for decades, or even live with cancer for years on end. Take long walks, travel, have sex – you are alive, and this precious time is yours!
  • Use treatment decisions for personal empowerment and balance. Medical decisions, especially when coping with cancer, can be very involved. Address treatment decisions as an opportunity for striking the balance between evidence-based information and going with your instincts. Take pride in your ability to assess the research while going with your heart and gut. At the same time, block out time limits for the deliberations, peppering the process with a diversion for yourself. This balance of focus versus fun will give you respite and renewal. And take statistics with a grain of salt, always choosing to count yourself among those who survive and even thrive.
  • Harness anxiety to fuel you into action. Anxiety is one of our most primitive emotions whose sole job is to protect us.  In our culture, we often think of anxiety as a feeling to quell, but instead, I advise people to use it as a force for change. Weigh your fears against what you’d like to do. By taking the time to assess your feelings of anxiety surrounding coping with cancer, you’ll be able to forge forward by choosing an action to take in order to feel best.
  • Commit to gratitude to stay positive. Many people coping with cancer come to view the illness as a blessing of sorts because it forces them to focus on appreciating their lives. People feel like they are left with no choice other than to appreciate what’s good and hope for the best. As cliché as it might sound, you really do have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being positive, including practicing gratitude. In fact, countless studies show a clear relationship between feeling positive and improved health.
  • Above all, make sure to laugh. As they say, laughter is the key to the soul. Even just the anticipation of laughter reduces stress hormones and boosts your immune system, and repetitive laughter can even mimic the health effects of exercise. Schedule in a comedy to watch daily with loved ones (and/or even by yourself), read comic books regularly, even allow yourself to become addicted to the Comedy Channel if that’s your thing. Likewise, medical personnel are oftentimes purposefully funny – they know that it helps you heal and them to maintain the positivity with you, too.

Coping with cancer is a process. While the initial diagnosis is often fraught with harsh emotions, it certainly doesn’t have to continue on that trajectory. With a focus on being open about feelings, utilizing anxiety as a forum for action, remaining positive, and making sure to have a laugh, coping with cancer is much more manageable. By taking a few regular steps, you’ll feel like you’re more than hanging in there. Surprisingly, you might even appreciate life – and even enjoy life – in an even more meaningful way.


Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, PLLC

Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Washington, DC Private Practice since 1999
Assistant Professor, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Washington, DC campus
Member, American Psychological Association