Coping with Cancer: 5 Lessons from my Patients

As a clinical genetic counselor, a big part of my job was educating my patients about the basics of genetics and hereditarycancer. Another equally, if not more, important part of my job was to talk to them about how a diagnosis of cancer, a positive genetic test result, or a combination of the two was impacting their life and those of their family members. Genetic counselors are not mental health specialists, and we refer patients to our talented colleagues in that field for long-term work as it comes up. But we are good listeners, and we hear you. For me and my patients, we would often discuss the types of emotions they were feeling and how they were coping with those emotions – these conversations were different every day with each individual patient. I like to think that I taught my patients a few things, but most of time, I was also learning.

I would like to share with you some of the things I have learned about the types of stress that may follow a diagnosis of cancer or a hereditary predisposition to cancer, and some of the strategies that may help to cope. As you read this, please keep in mind that every person is unique. You may experience different things at different times throughout your cancer journey. Also, not all coping strategies are created equal. You will find your own way to cope, and that may even evolve or change over time. Sometimes there may even be a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best for you.

The impact of a cancer diagnosis or a positive genetic test result may cause different types of stress. For example, you may experience physical stress from treatment (surgery, chemotherapy, etc.). You may also experience emotional stress from shock, fear, anxiety, sadness, or anger, just to name a few. These emotions may be difficult for you and/or your family to cope with. Other types of stress may include financial stress from medical costs or difficulties within your personal relationships. 

I think of coping as an effort to address personal problems and reduce or handle stress. Coping strategies are the different approaches you might use to achieve this goal. This process can often be emotional, cognitive (involving your mind and thought), and behavioral (involving your actions). Developing successful coping strategies can be important for anyone going through a stressful time, such as being diagnosed with cancer or finding out that you are at an increased risk for cancer. Here are some different ways I’ve seen that people may cope (in no particular order):

  1. Getting social support – Reach out to the people around you for help. Your family and friends may be an initial source of support, but remember there are also support groups and other advocacy resources to help you through your journey. Sometimes, talking to someone else who has gone through a similar experience can be helpful.
  2. Expressing emotions – Don’t be afraid to share what you are feeling. It can be important to talk through and express your emotions. Some people you may consider talking to include your doctors, family/friends, spiritual or religious leader, or support groups.
  3. Seeking information – You may find information and knowledge a good way to cope. If gathering information is helpful for you, make sure you talk to your healthcare providers, so you can be provided with trustworthy resources (like this website) to learn about your diagnosis.
  4. Connecting with religion/spirituality – If you find strength in your religion or spirituality, you may benefit from using this as a coping strategy. Some may find that attending a religious service or meeting with their religious leader helps to reduce stress.
  5. Exercising and eating healthy – Exercise and a healthy diet may also help to decrease stress and increase coping. Make sure you talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet and activity level, especially during treatment.

As you learn how to best cope with your diagnosis, think about ways that you have coped with other difficult experiences in your life. Some of them could apply here as well. Also, talk to your healthcare providers to get advice on other possible ways to reduce stress. You can also get help from healthcare providers trained to help people develop useful coping strategies, such as a psychologist. Remember, you are not alone. 



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