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HOW DO I COPE WITH CANCER? - CHAPTER 4

Information on cancer for patients and families

Fighting disease, fighting poverty, giving hope

How do I cope with cancer?

Being diagnosed with cancer can be hard to accept. You are likely to go through a range of emotions before, during and after your treatment. This is very normal.

Shock

Shock is often the first reaction when a doctor tells someone they have cancer. You may:

  • feel numb
  • not believe what is happening
  • be unable to express any emotion
  • find that you can only take in small amounts of information
  • ask the same questions repeatedly
  • need to have the same information repeated to you

You may find it difficult to talk about your illness with your family and friends. Or you may find that you need to talk about it over and over again to help the news to sink in.

Denial

Some people may feel overwhelmed and cannot accept the diagnosis. You may find that you:

  • don’t want to know anything about your cancer or treatment
  • say that you have not been told about the diagnosis

This is a completely natural reaction. But in extreme cases, denial can be unhelpful. If this reaction starts to get in the way of your treatment or makes your overall situation worse, you may need professional help from a psychologist.

Sometimes you may need to talk about your cancer, but your family and friends may be the ones in denial. They may:

  • seem to ignore the fact that you have cancer
  • play down your anxieties and symptoms
  • deliberately change the subject

People can react in this way because they are frightened that someone they love has a life threatening condition.

Bargaining

You may be filled with “What if …?” or “If only …” questions. You may desperately want an answer for why you have cancer. You may blame yourself, or God.

Depression

You might feel sad, have suicidal thoughts, cry often, feel irritable/moody, experience changes in eating or sleeping habits and lose interest in activities you previously enjoyed. If these symptoms persist for more than 2 weeks, tell your doctor and ask for a referral to a psychologist.

Anger

You may be very angry that you have cancer and feel that you do not deserve it. The anger may be directed at yourself, your partner, family, medical staff or God. There is a sense that life is unfair.

Acceptance

Eventually you will come to accept that you have cancer and be able to focus on dealing with the diagnosis and treatments.

These emotional reactions are normal and you may move from one emotion to the next and back again during the course of the treatment.

Coping with your emotional reactions

Remember that each person is unique and will experience their own reactions to the diagnosis and cope in their own way and time.

Family may feel the need to be strong for the patient while ignoring their own pain. Each person needs space to express and deal with their emotions. Try to both offer and accept support from each other.

Don’t hide the illness from your children. Give them honest, simple explanations such as “Mummy is sick and has to go for treatment every week to get better. The medicine can make me feel tired or throw up”.

Don’t hide a disease from your children,

Children may go through similar emotions. Encourage them to express their feelings by talking about them with you/ a family member/ a teacher, drawing pictures of their feelings or running around the house until their angry feelings have left them. Find healthy ways to express your emotions such as talking to loved ones, crying, writing down your thoughts and feelings in a book, praying, gardening or listening to music.

Avoid alcohol or drugs which may dull the emotional pain temporarily, but lead to further problems.

Try some relaxation techniques such as breathing deeply, visualizing being happy and coping, going down to a river, building a puzzle, meditation and exercise. Get spiritual support, pray together or visit your religious leader.

Join a support group for people with cancer (see contact details at end) or speak with other persons who had cancer. Counseling by a social worker or psychologist can help you deal with your feelings and move forward.

Coping with everyday life

The cancer itself or the side effects of treatment can make it difficult for you to continue with your everyday tasks as you did before. It is important to talk about what you can manage doing, what you need help doing and what someone else can do for you.

  • If there were family problems before the cancer diagnosis, things may not get any better after the diagnosis. The problems can end in having more love for one another as a result of overcoming a shared challenge like cancer. If there are family or relationship difficulties, a social worker or psychologist can help address these.
  • You might need a family member or caregiver to assist you in caring for yourself while you undergo treatments and possibly thereafter. Speak to your doctor who can refer you to a social worker about options available in your area.
  • Household chores and child care might be a challenge as well. The family may need to discuss how to redistribute tasks so that the responsibilities are shared. The social worker can arrange a family meeting to discuss these issues.
  • Speak with your employer about changing your working times or responsibilities to accommodate your treatments so you can continue working. If this is not possible, then you can apply for benefits from your employer or the Department of Labour. You can also speak with your doctor about your work responsibilities and whether you could qualify for a disability grant.
  • Keep a list of symptoms, side effects and questions so that you can remember to tell the doctor about them at your next visit.
  • If possible, take a friend or family member with you when you go for treatment. This will help with physical support, emotional support and making sure both of you understand clearly what the doctor/nurse says.

Acknowledgements

These chapters are based on the document “What is cancer? Information on cancer for patients and family” by Diane Mariah-Singh, Department of Social Work and Elisabeth Raymakers, Department of Physiotherapy, Grey’s Hospital, Pietermaritzburg, KZN, South Africa.

We thank the authors for allowing us to use their work for the benefit of cancer patients.

Special thanks to:

  • Dr Henriette Burger, editor
  • Alta Nel, translation into Afrikaans
  • Arina Wilson, translation into Xhosa
  • Linda Greeff, from Cancercare by GVI oncology

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