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Living your life with and beyond cancer well


Dr Natalie Hession, Principal Counselling Psychologist & Head of Department of Psycho-oncology at St Luke's Radiation Oncology Network writes about living with and beyond cancer.

Living with a cancer diagnosis is one of the toughest things that anyone has to deal with. The emotional upheaval of such news can impact on all aspects of your life, physically and emotionally.  The cancer journey is a difficult time for individuals and their families who will often be faced with challenging emotions. Everyone is different and there is no right or wrong way to feel. It’s normal to wonder, “Why me?” or to feel sad, angry or afraid.” Living with and beyond cancer may mean adjusting to a loss and change in life roles and aspirations, changes to self-esteem, uncertainty about the future, and an impact on relationships. You may experience changes that are very different from someone else's, even if that person had the same type of cancer and treatment.


Life after a cancer diagnosis is like a roller coaster ride: moments when you feel like you can handle all the stress and moments when you feel overwhelmed; hours when life looks richer and brighter than ever before, and hours when all the world appears gloomy; times when you are brimming with confidence and optimism, and time when you want to give up.


 Here are 10 things to consider when living with and beyond cancer.

1. There is no ‘right’ way to cope

There is no way to act or cope, as everyone has their own coping strategies or mechanisms. There is no ‘right’ way to cope with living with and beyond cancer, but there might be new methods that one could be open to. It is completely normal to be experiencing a wide range of emotions including worry. Attempting to accept your feelings is an important first step to building resilience. The simple act of naming your emotions has been found to be beneficial. So, take a moment to tune into your body and notice how you are feeling. Remember: It is okay to feel discomfort. Consider using words of comfort and kindness towards yourself, such as “its okay”. Accepting distress is often the quickest way to feel immediately calmer.


2. Don’t expect emotions to progress along in neat stages

Your emotions may change on a daily basis, even an hourly basis. The experience will unfold as a process and there will be many ups and downs.


3. Attempt to redirect worries

If you are aware that you have increased hypothetical worry (i.e., the ‘what if?’ thoughts), you may find it helpful to practice noticing these thoughts and then redirecting your attention to things within your control. Research shows that when we shift our focus to what we can control, we see meaningful and lasting differences in our wellbeing. “Ask yourself: Does this appearance (of events) concern the things that are within my own control or those that are not?


4. Be informed

Living with cancer often involves dealing with long term side effects of treatment which has a direct impact on one’s quality of life:

- Learning how to manage treatment side effects including alterations to own’s sexual health, memory loss, cancer related fatigue.

- Getting the right information is important.

- Asking your healthcare team what changes are anticipated or what to expect will help you prepare and give you a greater sense of control.

- Go to trusted sources. Ask yourself is “ ‘Dr. Google’ helping me right now or causing me more worry?”


5. Talk to someone you trust

Dealing with a diagnosis of cancer can be traumatic, and you will go through an array of emotions. It is normal to feel stress, anxiety, sadness, anger or a sense of a loss of control. After treatment and living with cancer can be difficult, often there is a sense of perpetual worry and vigilance, it may feel lonely at times. Finding someone to talk to is important – someone you can trust and can help you sort through your thoughts and feelings. Being open when dealing with emotions helps many people feel less worried and enable them to enjoy each day even a little. However, sometimes you may feel you would benefit from professional help, such as a registered psychologist or counsellor, to deal with the disruptions in your personal and family life.


6. Acknowledge your fears

While it is normal to have fearful thoughts from time to time, you shouldn’t have to keep them there. Some people picture them floating away or being vaporised. Others turn them over to a higher power to handle.


7. Maintain a normal and healthy lifestyle

Take care of yourself. Look after your body through a balanced diet and exercise. Focusing on the present moment rather than thinking of an uncertain future or a difficult past. If you can find a way to be peaceful inside yourself, even for a few minutes a day, you can start to recall that peace when life becomes busy, scary or confusing.

8. Being positive doesn’t always help

Trying too hard to be positive can sometimes make you feel worse. You may be afraid to say how you feel because you want to be ‘brave’ or ‘positive’ but that can be hard work and not always the most helpful. Sharing with others that you are finding it difficult is not a weakness. It is the first step in allowing others understand you and getting the support you need.

9. Accept help from those in your life

Accepting help can sometimes be the most difficult thing to do, but if your energy is low you have to allow your family and friends run errands, provide lifts, prepare meals and help with practical chores. Typically, others want to help (both emotionally and practically) but they need to be told how. Family members are not mind-readers. It is best to take the lead in letting them know what you need practically and emotionally. You may say, “They should just know”. However, your needs may change from day to day and even moment to moment and your family needs guidance.


10. Support groups 

While some people might shy away from support groups, studies have shown that many people who take part in support groups have a better quality of life. Putting your thoughts and feelings into words gives you new ideas about how to deal with them. While speaking in a group is not for everyone, talking with others who are in situations like yours can help ease loneliness. The mutual sharing of experiences and understanding can help. You can also get ideas to aid decision making from others who have had similar experiences such as when and if to return to work.

The Look Good, Feel Better Programmes can offer a shared experience with other women going through something similar. At the same time, it allows you to focus on something more than the cancer and treatment. It may provide a welcome distraction and a way to befriend your body again and ultimately increase your self-esteem and confidence.

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