Cancer Stress: Suggestions From a Breast Cancer Survivor


A two-time cancer survivor several years out from her first diagnosis shares ways to help your cancer survivor “worry brain.”

Of course I want medical research to catch up with and cure cancer. I also want tools on the front end of diagnosis and through the months and years that follow to cope with the anxiety, depression, worry, and post-traumatic stress disorder that can come from the cancer experience. Too many of us (cancer survivors) are too preoccupied and worn down by living with uncertainty and worry with the cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship process.

Do you wish for a balance of being responsible about follow-up doctor visits and tests without being overly preoccupied emotionally and mentally by the disease? Cancer takes enough without letting it take from our emotions and thoughts too. Cancer can’t have my soul. Enough already.

I think we are starting to get better balance. Research on the emotional aspects of cancer has begun as well as an improved awareness of how stressful just the process itself is, including how life-changing hearing the words “You have cancer” can be. What should you do about the post-traumatic stress of finding out you have cancer?

Here is my advice. First, tell your doctors what you are experiencing emotionally. Doctors aren’t psychic. If they don’t know, they can’t refer you to resources that will help you. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. That said, let’s also get more tools into doctors’ hands so they can offer their cancer patients help for the mental and emotional aspects of this diagnosis. When I was diagnosed, I found that my first resource was the Internet, but ultimately I got the most help from, well, real live people.

Second, swallow your pride or independence and use the resources that are offered. It was hard for me to let someone else clean my home at one point. Consider any or all of the following: taking an anti-depressant/anxiety medication, accepting help from your family, friends, or faith community, seeing an oncology talk therapist, joining a support group, or talking to a survivor further down the road who has a cancer similar to your own. Use the lifelines that are available to you. Give them a chance to help you. Tweak your approach as needed.

Third, take care of your body. Take the time to eat correctly, sleep enough, exercise as approved by your doctor and, as you are able to, and try to relax. Going through cancer treatment is a traumatic experience and it takes time for your body to recover from it. Be patient and gentle with your body. Your body is fighting for you.

Fourth, you should also be patient and gentle with yourself. Recognize when you are tired and then slow down. Understand that the feelings you may be feeling are actually pretty common for an abnormal situation like cancer treatment. Take the time to go to the support group meetings and connect with others going through what you are going through. Be gentle with your feelings.

Finally, recognize that your own cancer patient experience is unique. Given that, make an effort to learn what works for you. Try to journal so you can distinguish what good days and bad days look like for you. Learn what your trigger points are and figure out what works best for you when something triggers your “worry brain.”

Try to put as many tools in your emotional backpack as you can. Some ideas are: walks outside, crafts that keep your hands busy, mindfulness meditation, yoga, or distractions like books, movies, a television series, or even shopping! Learn what calms your mind the best. As you learn, please share what helps you so we can all learn together!

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