How to Regain Control After a Cancer Diagnosis


Here are a few tips I’ve found that helped me regain a sense of control after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Control.Ask any person who has been diagnosed with cancer, and many may tell you that the loss of control that comes along with being told this terrifying news is one of the worst parts of it all. Giving up (perceived) control of your health, your emotional stability, your ability to make plans, even just being able to commit to doing some of the little things that we all take for granted — that’s the truly devastating part of this.

During treatment, side effects, symptoms and complications will almost inevitably occur, and it is an all-too-frequent occurrence that someone may not be feeling up to having visitors or be able to go to their child’s school musical or basketball game. Even after active treatment is over, the effects of a cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment can stubbornly linger, and this can make the well-deserved and desperately longed for “return to normal” maddeningly fleeting at times.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Although some degree of loss of control is inevitable, there is actually a lot that we can control, thereby helping to alleviate some of the frustration and feelings of hopelessness that can accompany a diagnosis.

Do your research. Ask questions. Talk to other people who have gone through a similar journey and learn from them. Have a very honest and frank discussion with your health care team about what to expect and when. Make an informed decision that works for you and your situation.

Learn your patterns and prepare for them. For example, if you find that you are at your lowest on days three and four after chemo, then plan for that.If you are working during treatment, take time off work those days, as you will need to rest and recover.

Perhaps schedule your chemo days so that you will have the weekend (or whatever your normal days off are) to help maximize the amount of time you have available to recuperate. Don’t plan to have visitors over during those most symptomatic days, unless it is for them to help you with whatever needs to be done (household chores, grocery shopping, picking up kids from daycare/school, etc). Maybe have some already-prepared frozen meals that you just have to quickly heat up for the family so the cooking is minimal.

For some people, they find that the day of chemo and the first day afterward are actually the days they tend to be very productive, thanks to the steroids that go along with the chemo. If that is the case for you, then try to deliberately plan to do some of the more energy-intensive tasks (such as laundry, errands, taking the kids to the park) on those days.

After cancer, many people find that they need to intentionally prioritize themselves and their own health, both emotional and physical. Part of this involves establishing boundaries with other people, especially with people who seem to have trouble respecting limits. This can also mean deliberately cutting out unhealthy relationships. Though initially this may seem like a daunting task, it truly is vital to preserve a sense of normalcy, and to avoid unnecessary drama and the draining of emotional bandwidth which you need to try to focus on your own well-being and healing.

As survivorship continues, be sure to pay attention to your physical health. If you’ve already been diagnosed with cancer once, research shows that you have a higher likelihood of having another cancer diagnosis in the future, relative to the general population.

We all know the extreme importance of early diagnosis. So keep up with your screenings! This means mammograms and Pap smears for women, and prostate exams for men. Colonoscopies, as unpleasant as the thought can be, are absolutely the best way to find problems early, before symptoms start, and it is very important to keep up with those screenings. Skin checks should also not be neglected. For current or former smokers, there are lung cancer screening protocols. If you have had cancer that is due to a genetic mutation, you will likely be advised to do additional screening tests for other cancers as well. Ask your oncologist about what you need to be mindful of for you and your medical history.

Make plans for the future. Go on that family trip, make the memories with the kids or grandkids. Start a memory book/journal for the next generation. Add to it for years to come — it will be a precious gift for loved ones to cherish.

Cancer is a thief; it tries to steal so many things from us, including our sense of control. Reclaiming some degree of that control is empowering and that can help us as we navigate our way through cancer treatment and survivorship.

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