7 Tips For Coping With a Cancer Diagnosis

Brought to you by  Cancer Council NSW

Did you know that in New South Wales alone, 46,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed every year? I was one of those 46,000 twice, and those diagnoses didn’t just impact my life significantly, they impacted the lives of those around me too.

A cancer diagnosis is all encompassing. It involves not just the person who has been diagnosed but their partners, carers and family all of whom have to deal with increasingly complex decisions that require an understanding of cancer, its treatment and ongoing management.

No matter how prepared you think you might be for a cancer diagnosis, nothing can actually prepare you for  hearing the words, “it’s cancer”.

However, there are some coping strategies that I’ve tried and tested (both times) that can make a really stressful time easier.

1. Get informed

One of the most challenging things about a cancer diagnosis is the fear of the unknown. However, knowledge is power and the more you know and learn about your cancer and your diagnosis, it’s likely the better you’ll feel. It’s really important to remember that “Dr Google” has not been to medical school, and any questions you have should be directed at someone who has. I once consulted Dr Google who told me I would likely be dead in three years. Here I am alive and kicking almost 6 years later, so it just goes to show, don’t believe everything you read on the internet kids!

If you have any questions (and believe me you will have a lot,) do ask a member of your medical team. If you have a burning question in-between appointments, phone or email your doctor who will be happy to answer it for you.

2. Get Organised

If you prefer to get your answers face to face, then I suggest writing all your questions down. I carried a notebook around in my bag and had it next to my bed, because questions would pop into my brain at any given time. That notebook became my best accessory at appointment time because I got all the information I needed and the more I knew and understood, the less fear I felt.

A cancer diagnosis brings a mountain of paper work, so it’s a good idea to keep all your health information in a binder. You can include doctors’ letters, receipts and invoices, relevant medical information, names and addresses of your medical team and also scheduled appointments.

3. Take Control

A cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling utterly disempowered and as if you’ve lost control. Learning about your cancer and treatment can give you some control over what is happening and help in keeping everyday life as normal as possible. There’s something really comforting about “everyday normal” after a cancer diagnosis, when everything else seems somehow different.

4. Be Kind to Yourself

A cancer diagnosis brings its own unique set of mental and physical challenges. Rather than punishing yourself for the things that you can’t do, show yourself some love, and give yourself permission to take it easy. Your body will love you for it!

Indulge in some self care – whether it’s a yoga class, curling up with a book or getting your craft on. If it makes you feel rested and relaxed just do it.

Remember to keep on moving, as much and often as you can and set those endorphins free. I exercised right up until the date of my surgery (and as soon as I was able to after) which enhanced both my physical and emotional wellbeing. However, do consider your diagnosis and treatment and check with your doctor if, what and when it’s safe to exercise.

Worries and fears are nocturnal beasts but it’s worth developing some healthy sleep hygiene habits.  It may help to change when and how you sleep, for example, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, avoiding caffeine in the evening, reading before lights out and leaving your phone someplace other than the bedroom. The more sleep you’ll get the better you’ll feel.

5. Rally Your Troops

Telling your friends and family can be heartbreakingly hard. No one wants to upset the people they love and care about, but it’s important to remember that your friends and family love you back and they’ll want to support you. However, not everyone will know how to react or how to support you best. It’s OK to ask for help, and to say what  you need, whether it’s someone to listen, to give you a hug or help you out with cooking or stuff around the house.

6. Get professional help

Believe me when I say cancer affects your mind as much as it affects your body. A diagnosis brings on a case of “all the feels.” You’ll likely experience feelings of shock, denial, anxiety, panic, fear, sadness and anger to name but a few and managing these emotions on your own is lonely work. One of the first things I did after my diagnosis, was to reach out to a therapist. The earlier you see a therapist the better, because you’ll have support through every stage of the process.

Cancer is a scary business. No matter how open and honest your relationships are with your loved ones, there are some things you just won’t want to talk about with them, because you won’t want to burden them, after all, they are worried and frightened too. Having someone you can talk to about your fears, openly and honestly without judgement is such a positive and cathartic experience.

7. Stay positive

Staying positive isn’t going to cure your cancer but it sure is going to help you cope with it better. Encourage yourself where possible,  high five yourself for your strength and courage, make the most of the times you feel well, and make it your goal to put as much life in each day as you can.

For more information about dealing with a diagnosis, check out Cancer Council NSW’s new podcast series – ‘The Thing About Cancer’. Each episode focuses on a different theme and features guests with expert knowledge in the area. The series covers everything from how to explain cancer to kids, managing cancer fatigue and everything in between.

Download the podcast from iTunes or visit www.cancercouncil.com.au/podcasts/

Have you got any tips to add to the list?

Linking up with Kylie for IBOT

  • Tracy

    I think you’re absolutely right. Having knowledge means feeling empowered and giving you what you need to be able to feel like you’re in control a bit more.

    My Dad is one this journey at the moment, but we have been incredibly chilled about the whole thing. Right up front the doctors have said treatment = cure for him in his scenario. He has had to back out of all the things he’s done so he can give himself space to rest a lot. Another thing he has done is join a support group for people with his kind of cancer. He’s doing really well and his tests are improving.

    • That’s such a great prognosis for your dad and so good to hear that he’s improving. Giving yourself time and space to heal is so important and how awesome that he’s joined a group – it’s so important to have support and people to talk to.

      You’re so right about the knowledge, it give you some sense of control and feel like you can get a grip on (at least some of) the things that are happening. Wishing your dad happy and healthy days ahead and hope that you’re going OK too. Big hugs x

  • Great post hun!
    One of the big things I found shocking about my breast cancer diagnosis, was the profound grief I felt. It was such a hit initially.
    Also, the almost annoying attitude from everyone that ‘I would be okay.’ Wishing someone well does not and can not cure cancer. It really stressed me at the time.
    Cancer is shizzy and the mental scars are for life. X

    • Thanks love! I think that first hit of all the feels, is so overwhelming. I can’t remember what I did yesterday but I can still remember the moment I got my diagnoses as clear as day. It’s so confronting.

      The podcast is brilliant, it has some great ideas for how to tell others about your diagnosis, on your terms. I wish I knew then what I know now 🙂

      Cancer is so shizzy and I’m with you, while the physical scars fade over time, the mental scars will take much longer to heal. Here’s to happier and healthier days ahead xx

  • These are great tips Sammie that can also be used in many other situations. Thank you for sharing xx

  • Jane Smith

    Sam you are so right on everything. Even with a major illness as well as cancer your tips are perfect. I’ve found knowing all I can is ever so helpful. In my case I have found that my brothers have worried more than I have. Very sweet of them really. I guess it’s because I’m there every day and they aren’t.
    Let’s hope we all keep healthy and lead the life we want.

    • I found the more I knew, the better I felt. Cancer brings so many unknowns, I relished every bit of information I could get, even if it wasn’t particularly pleasing. Cancer really took it’s toll not just on me but my loved ones especially. Poor David, he looked worse than I did. Here’s to happy, healthy days ahead xx

  • I have nothing to add but I do trust those who’ve had the journey most.

  • This will be such a useful read to anyone just facing the news. I think not googling things would be so hard. When my mum was diagnosed, I pumped her oncologist for info. He reluctantly gave me the type of cancer and the stage. The rest, I got from reading her chart. I did Google and found out that it was a very poor prognosis, which I then ran by a doctor friend. I wish the oncologist had just sat me down and explained it in the first place!

    • My doctor told me I had an excellent prognosis and was open to all my questions but I googled it anyway. When I found evidence to the contrary from my good friend Dr Google and challenged his prognosis, he explained that much of the stuff on the internet is either old or from a very limited study or both.

      I’m sorry that your mum’s doctor wasn’t more forthcoming… That can really make an already difficult situation even more challenging. I think it’s harder when you’re not the patient perhaps, I certainly found that when my mum was recently in hospital. But huzzah for doctor friends, hey?!

  • This post is perfect, Sammie – and so useful as we are all touched by cancer in some way or another.

    I love your reminder to not believe everything you read on the web as that is SO important! Too often the first thing we do once we have a name or a term is google and that’s a rabbit hole of worry!

    • The stats are such that if we don’t get a diagnosis, we’re likely to be close to someone who has. It’s sad but true. You’re so right, once you get on to the web to look for medical advice, it is one big rabbit hole of worry! Brilliantly put!

  • Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella

    I can’t imagine what it’s like to go through this not once but twice. I’m sure people will find this post very helpful Sammie!

    • Ironically, although the cancer was a lot more serious the second time around, it was much easier to cope with because I knew what to expect with the surgery and the treatment.

  • This post couldn’t have come at a better time (as you know). Thanks so much Sammie Xx

    • The podcast is great. I really think you’d get value and benefit from it. Even at this stage in my “journey” (for want of a better word,) I’ve found it such a worthwhile listen.

  • Great and sensible list that I hope I never have to use. I can imagine it would be so tempting to do down a Doctor Google hole.

    • I hope you never have to use it too. But yes, I learned my lesson the hard way with Dr Google. I haven’t consulted him since!

  • savan ah

    Everyone is different but in my case I choose not to tell anyone! My father went around telling everyone and suffered their reactions … usually their own fear and revulsion. This made him “the person with cancer” even when he chose to deny it to himself. If you truly believe you will recover (and you need to!), don’t be labelled as pitiable for the rest of your (healthy!) life. And why bring fear and grief to your loved ones if you are going to be cured?
    That’s my take.

    • I totes respect your take. The podcast had some really great tips on how to tell people on your terms – I wish I’d have had a listen when I had my diagnoses and surgeries. I agree, in an ideal world, it would be great not to tell anyone but depending on the diagnosis and treatment, it can be quite hard to keep it a secret. That said, I was born over sharing so of course I told everyone 🙂

      • savan ah

        Haha! We’re all glad you overshare with us! Xxx👯👯

  • Hugzilla

    This is such a fantastic post – my only gripe is that you hadn’t written it this time last year before my dad got diagnosed with bowel cancer!! All good, after surgery and 6 months of chemo he just got the all-clear. My mum also has terminal blood cancer, so between the two of them they know way too much about this shit. Fuck cancer.

    • Oh man, that sucks balls so bad. No one wants a family expert on cancer, much less two experts. Great news about Dad, hope mum is holding her own. I hope you’re OK too, it hurts to watch your loved ones go through the wringer like that. The podcast has some top tips for not just patients but carers too, and it’s not airy fairy but totes practical. It might be of value for you even now, I certainly got a lot from it and I’m six years in. Hugs for you (excuse the pun!) xx

  • That’s a fabulous list. I think letting people know what you need is really good advice – people always want to help but sometimes they need a guiding hand to do so.

    • I agree. I was listening to the podcast today and they were saying how it’s much better to tell people what you need or as a friend to just take matters into your own hands. I remember my friends coming over with soup and if they’d asked me what they could do or bring, I know I would have said nothing! It’s important to remember that the diagnosis puts everyone in unchartered territory, including friends and family x

  • Love these tips Sam.

  • Jenni from Styling Curvy

    I have soooo many but one is ‘stay off google’ x

    • That’s one of my favourites! Now I want to hear your others… Will I see them in a blog post in the near future? x

  • Merilyn

    You are Always so helpful thankyou Sammie!
    A very complex subject indeed!
    I would be the ostrich, as nothing about that diagnosis is nice! … Not helpful for anything, but I know that denial is the first in a line of reactions to getting to acceptance!
    My mother was stoic from the outset to the end. We were strong because of her!
    Much love m)x

    • It’s such a complex and multi layered situation, nothing can prepare you for how you’re going to feel. Bless your mum, she sounds like a trooper! xx

  • Luce mills

    Sammie you always have great information with all of your topics
    and I just love reading about them…..

  • All excellent advice, and great to see it all in one place for sufferers and their families to find. I know from experience that there’s a tonne of info out there but it can be tough to locate the exact things you need.

    • I think that’s the thing about a diagnosis, there is so much information, and it’s a big job to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. It’s so important not to just get any information, but the right information that you need. The podcast is great because it covers so many different topics and is so easy to listen and relatable.

  • All of the above were helpful to me on
    & after my diagnosis on 17/5/17. Some things i did instinctively in the early days of the first week:told the family, cried, got organised asap to attend my Head & Neck Team at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse…. and only looked at documention my team suggested as they too have a website. I was alone when i got the news from my oral surgeon & that was both awful & helpful because i went outside & wondered if this would be a catalyst for reconciliation for me and a family member… and it is happening slowly. i then waited for my hub to get home & hug me! Im an information seeker normally but for this most unusual cancer for a woman in her mouth, I decided to remain ignorant until the next day when I met with the associate professor. It still hit me like a tonne of bricks when he told me the details lf my surgery & I’d be under for 10-12 hours 😧
    Over time I shared my news on-line and the overwhelming love & care was received with humility & gratitude! And still is as i am recovering & my SM network & bloggy mates have helped me be distracted through my recent 10 day hospital stay. Your reaching out to me and updates as time passed were very helpful & loving… and you promised me a cake when I could eat again! Motivation + to get well! Love ya Sammie! 😘

    • I think your team are smart directing you to relevant reading material, should you want it. It’s funny, I too am in information seeker but I also decided to remain ignorant, at least until I saw my surgeon with my trusty list of questions. I know sharing the news will be different for everyone, but I got a real boost for the love and support of friends and family near and far. I wasn’t online then but if I hadn’t got my second diagnosis I would never have started blogging – so I will always be thankful for that, one of my favourite “flip sides.” I’m sorry that you’ve had to employ these strategies, the past couple of months, you’ve really been “through the wringer” but I’m in awe of your spirit and strength and how well you’re doing. You rock! I see some very delicious cake in your future 🙂

  • Bryony Sumner

    Wow those statistics are incredible! Your tips will be so useful to all those affected.

  • Just judging by the number of comments here you can tell how valuable this information is – just wish you hadn’t had to go through it twice yourself xx

    • I wish I hadn’t had to go through it twice too, but at least it means I can share some insider tips! And just think if I hadn’t gone through it, I wouldn’t be blogging here today!