Cancer patients not only have to deal with a life-threatening illness, but also the psychological effects of knowing they have cancer. Top psychologist Dr Sue Peacock explains the impact it has on their mental wellbeing and gives some top tips on how to deal with these feelings to take back control of your life.
Nothing can hit you quite like the news that you have a serious illness. Finding out that you have cancer can cause fear, anxiety, depression and grief, and can feel overwhelming. Your life has been turned upside down and inside out, and will continue to be shaken up with each new CT scan, lab result, treatment and side-effect. Some patients feel as though their whole identity has been shattered.
The cancer patients that I see often have unmanageable, fearful thoughts that lead to anxiety and all the problems that come with it.
Anxiety is a psychological condition in which feelings of fear, unease and worry can manifest as physical symptoms:
- Shallow breathing
- Increased muscle tension
- Less energy
- Difficulty sleeping
These symptoms can often make the anxiety worse, which causes the whole thing to go round in a vicious circle.
They key is to learn to manage anxiety, thereby controlling its effects on your wellbeing. Here are some top tips that can be effective in stopping anxiety controlling your life:
- Give yourself time
When patients receive a cancer diagnosis, often their initial reaction is to try to do something about it immediately. My advice: put the brakes on for a moment. Take some time. Go through what the doctor told you; what tests you need; treatment options. Thinking about it, talking about it, and writing things down are all helpful ways to process and understand your diagnosis and the best way forward.
- Get all the information you can
Write down any and all questions you think of and discuss them with your doctor. Discuss them with family and friends too.
- Stay organised
You may receive a lot of information about your diagnosis and treatment options, and along with prescriptions, appointments, test results, and other resources, this can add up to a lot of paperwork. Keeping this organised in a folder can help give you a sense of control at a time when you’re feeling like you have none.
- Triangle breathing
This technique can help you beat an anxiety attack. Draw a triangle and write “I” on “E”, and “P” on each of the three sides. Take a deep breath while looking at the “I” and think “inhale”. Exhale slowly while looking at the “E”. Pause while looking at the “P” and count 1, 2, 3, 4. Then repeat.
- Catching anxious thoughts
Anxious thoughts have a tendency to lead from one to another, multiplying and snowballing until we feel overwhelmed. The trick is to catch them early. Write down your thoughts to identify the one that started the chain reaction. Then try to replace it with a less anxious one. Go through the list, substituting worrying ideas with new thoughts that are confident and empowering.
- Relaxation and visualisation
- Don’t give into “What if” thoughts
If you find yourself thinking “What if the cancer has spread?” or “What if I can’t look after myself?” ask yourself: is this thought helping me or hurting me? Is it helping me move forward or holding me back? “What if” thoughts lead from one to another and spiral into anxiety. Don’t play the game!
- Restore calm
What would make you feel better at that moment? A cup of tea? Another pillow? Music? Phoning a friend? Make yourself comfortable to restore calm.
- Focus on making choices
Choosing to do things is empowering and makes you feel in control. Say “I am choosing to…” instead of “I have to” or “I should”.
Distract yourself from the source of your anxiety. This could be simply visualising your favourite place, thinking about the colours, smells, textures and noises. Visualisation takes practice, so memorise details about this place before you have to use it to control your anxiety.
- Ground yourself
When an anxiety attack occurs, look around you. What can you see right now? What colour are the walls and floor? How many tables are there? Focussing on these things interrupts a chain of anxious thoughts and grounds you to stop anxiety spinning out of control.
- I can’t handle this…
Yes, you can! Focus on the next five minutes. You can handle anything by taking it five minutes at a time.
- Zooming in and out
Look at things from different perspectives. How do you fit in the big picture with your friends, family, community, and life in general?
- Thought breaks
How long can you let your mind go blank for, not thinking any thought? This tool can help to let your mind rest.
Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you to deal with them, as can reading them back in the future.