Cancer Emotional Survival 101: Tips for Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patients and Their Loved Ones


A two-time survivor shares thoughts to help newly diagnosed cancer patients and their loved ones cope emotionally.

Back in the day, there were summaries of classical books and plays that provide a summarized version of the complete story (these summaries acutally still exist today). Here is the short summary of suggestions for someone newly diagnosed with cancer as written by me, someone who has been through breast cancer and melanoma.

Every cancer and every cancer patient are unique, and there are no true shortcuts through cancer. I wish there were. Still, I am hoping these ideas will help you. These are the thoughts I wish I could have heard and used to cope with the feelings of a cancer diagnosis right after hearing the words “You have cancer.” Maybe they will help you or someone you love. Here is the short list summary:

Allow yourself to cry and experience whatever you are feeling. Cancer is a life-changer. You are completely allowed. The feelings can be long-term and intense. This is hard stuff. Working through the feelings may work better than stuffing them and having them come out at friends and family in strange ways.

Don’t do cancer alone. Connect with a fellow survivor, a support group, a family member or friend and/or someone further out with a similar cancer. Tell your faith community what is happening to you. Cherish your connections with those who want to help you. Connect with as many as you can for support — especially at initial diagnosis and active treatment, but even after, as needed.

Ask for help. Accept help. Don’t be shy about explaining what you need (a meal, a ride or a hug) when loved ones offer to help. They want to help but they may not know how to help. Be specific. Reach out to organizations that help support cancer survivors too.

Assemble a medical team you believe in and trust ... and then trust them. Ask people around you for doctor references. Research. Take questions and notes to the doctors. Write down the answers or have someone with you to do it for you.

Follow the “do what works for you” philosophy for coping emotionally before, during and after active cancer treatment to comfort yourself. This is going to be a challenging time that you need to get through. That said, do follow the doctors’ instructions and do keep the doctors posted on what you are doing and how you are doing. You don’t want to do or eat anything that works against the treatment plan.

Give yourself the same courtesies you would give a friend in the same situation:

  • Be gentle with yourself.
  • Give yourself the gift of time whenever you possibly can. Focus on things that are really good at distracting you from your cancer and on things that slow down the thoughts racing through your mind.
  • Help yourself however you can — tears, walking, journaling, meditating, finding comfort under a favorite blanket, connecting with nature, distraction ... you may find that different things work for you at different times. Be open to a learning process of what is helpful to you.

Coping with the emotions of cancer really can’t be reduced to a list of suggestions. If I had been handed a list at the time of diagnosis or shortly after that, I don’t know if it would have helped me or if I would even have been ready to actually hear those suggestions. Coping emotionally with cancer is a long-term process. Cancer is a journey. Everyone’s journey is a little bit different. Still, it is my hope these ideas help you. I hope other survivors chime in in the discussion board with ideas that helped them too.

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