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Pinktober & Halloween: Help for Frightening Cancer Emotions

A two-time cancer survivor shares ideas to cope with the lonely, frightening feelings that came with her breast cancer diagnosis.
PUBLISHED October 31, 2019
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at,or

Life can still be good, even with a cancer diagnosis or living in fear of cancer's return. Take a breath. Look outward rather than inward. Most of all, remember that you are truly not alone - even when it feels like you are. As a nine-year breast cancer survivor, five-year melanoma survivor, and now someone who is currently watching her pancreatic cysts, I want to share my thoughts to help you cope with your cancer.

Fear of recurrence: Of course cancer survivors are worried their cancer could return. In most cases, that is a definite possibility. Doctors usually don't say "cured." Instead, they say "NED", which means there is currently no evidence of disease. No one wants to face chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries, and other treatments again. It is rational, after cancer, to be afraid of a recurrence.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Going through the treatments for cancer is stressful and can result in PTSD. This can be a cancer reminder triggered by anything from a character in a show who has cancer, an upcoming doctor visit, or almost anything else that causes a survivor to remember the traumas of treatment.

Worries, fears, anxiety, and stress: All of these get ramped up and often stay that way after a cancer diagnosis - sometimes even after treatments are completed. Again, it seems like a pretty rational response to a frightening disease.

Here are my suggestions for coping with these things:

Connect with others who have a cancer similar to yours. Family and friends may or may not be able to comfort you. Maybe some can and others, for their own reasons, cannot. So in-person support groups are awesome, and online support groups like the ones on Facebook are helpful too. Just remember, these are fellow cancer survivors, not medical doctors, and remember that everyone's medical situation and history is a little different, too. Take the comfort of connection and support and the rest with a grain of salt.

Tell the doctor about the emotional side effects you are experiencing. Having trouble sleeping or staying calm? There are medications and talk therapists available to support you. Your doctor can help you make those connections.

Be gentle with yourself. If cancer feels like the most horrible thing that has ever happened to you, give yourself kindness. It may take a bit to get over your shock and access your emotional coping tools, and you may need to add more tools to that toolbox. It may take a bit to figure out which tools work for you the best. Be patient with yourself. Here are some of the ones that have helped me:

  • Distraction: Check out something on television, take a walk, find a window to watch the birds from. How about an absorbing book or audiobook, or a conversation about something other than cancer? Even a trip to the store can help take your mind off of cancer fears, whether you make a purchase or not.
  • Mindfulness meditation: Try different kinds different kinds and explore the ones that seem most helpful to you. There are audible guided meditations and easy ones in books that instruct you what to do.
  • A comfortable spot: Right now, you are not in the middle of a procedure. Do you have a chair, an end of the couch, a place in your bed where you can curl up with a soft comforting blanket? Create a special nest for yourself where you feel safe and try to revel in it.
  • Journaling: By hand or by typing, daily, or as needed, journaling can help you work through your fears. There are no "rules" to journaling. You want to cry and rant? Get it all out and stop it from spinning around in your head by putting it down on paper.
  • Gratitude: Mentally or physically, periodically make a list of what sparks gratitude in you. Yes, you have or have had cancer, but not everything in your life is wrong. This redirects your focus from cancer to happier things and it really can help. Try it daily for two weeks and maybe even consider making it a habit to go to when you are feeling negative.

You will be able to figure out the cancer coping tools that work for you, and we are here to help each other through the fright. Breathe as you cope with the fear. You are not alone.

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