Often the emotional preparation to deal with cancer diagnosis is the toughest test.
Any kind of cancer diagnosis is life-changing. There suddenly are many decisions to make about treatments, possible surgery, and recovery. It can be a lot to deal with cancer diagnosis. But one part of the process that often gets pushed aside is the psychological aspect — how do you manage the many emotions that come with it?
“The natural response to hearing ‘cancer’ is to feel a surge of anxiety and negative thoughts like ‘I’m going to die,'” says Dr. John Peteet, head of the psychosocial oncology fellowship at the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “Yet many men are reluctant to admit this and keep their feelings inside, so it’s tough to know when they need help and advice how to deal with cancer diagnosis.”
Of course, not every cancer diagnosis is the same, nor are men’s reactions to it. Depending on your situation and type of cancer, the treatment could be straightforward with minimal recovery, and not interfere too much with the quality of your life.
However, for others, the road can be long, with an unknown outcome. For instance, if you are diagnosed with possible prostate cancer, you may choose active surveillance, where you monitor your condition for changes rather than immediately proceeding with treatment or surgery. “This can keep the possibility of cancer looming for an extended period, which can further exaggerate stress and anxiety,” says Dr. Peteet.
No matter your prognosis, there are ways to address your reaction and manage these feelings, so you can focus more on treating your cancer. Here are some strategies to follow.
Prioritize your life. A diagnosis changes your life in the short and long term and offers a chance to focus on what is most important during this period: your health, family, and quality of life. “Put aside the things that can wait awhile,” says Dr. Peteet.
Get informed. You may feel less anxiety and stress if you are an active participant in your health care. “Understanding the process, how treatments will work, and how they will affect you in terms of side effects and recovery removes the mystery of what to expect and gives you a greater sense of control,” says Dr. Peteet. Bring a family member or friend to all interactions with your doctor to ensure all necessary information is communicated and all your questions are answered. If you can’t do this, record your conversations.
Find some support. Men often worry about being a burden to their families, so they are reluctant to open up about their emotions. If you find this is the case, you should look for outside encouragement. For instance, you could join a professionally led support group or reach out to someone you know who has gone through something similar.
“Some men may only need a person to listen or play the role of cheerleader, while others require a large group where they can ask questions and hear stories that can help address their fears and concerns,” says Dr. Peteet.
Take care of yourself. It’s common to abandon your usual health habits when dealing with stressful events, but it’s essential you maintain a regular exercise routine, continue to follow a healthy diet, and get enough sleep. “Reach out for professional help if you struggle with any of these,” says Dr. Peteet. For instance, you might hire a trainer who can create a workout program designed around your diagnosis and treatment, and consult with a nutritionist about your dietary needs. Also, speak with your doctor about any sleep issues.
Embrace stress relievers. People have different ways to deal with stress, such as meditation or diving into hobbies and other recreational activities.
“If your usual go-to stress relievers are not effective, talk with a therapist about cognitive behavioral therapy, or speak with your doctor about anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants,” says Dr. Peteet.
Designate a spokesperson. Friends and family want to know how you are coping, which can be a further stressor, so have someone be your official spokesperson to share updates and other information. Or begin a blog where you can post updates without having to interact.
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Look at what worked before. This is not the first time you have gone through a tough period of life. Revisit the support mechanisms that helped before, like embracing a spiritual or religious practice, or refocusing on personal or social relationships.