Coping with Fear After a Cancer Diagnosis
Fear may be the most common emotion that comes along with a cancer diagnosis.
It’s normal to fear that your cancer treatments won’t work, to fear that your cancer will return, and to fear that you will leave your loved ones behind.
There are things that can aggravate fear, such as stress, loneliness, or isolation.
There are also things that can trigger fear, such as new physical symptoms that show up which you may cause you to worry that your cancer has returned, even years after you've finished treatment.
10 Helpful Tips to Cope with Fearful Thoughts
1. Speak up - The more you face the reality of having cancer and everything that comes with it…the side effects, the physical changes, the unknowns… the easier it will be to accept. Just the fact that you are reading this article shows that you are acknowledging your feelings and are willing to work to find a solution.
Facing your diagnosis includes opening up about your feelings. If you don’t want to speak with a friend or family member, there are plenty of professional therapists, cancer coaches, or support groups available in person and online. Those who don't share their feelings or tell anyone about their diagnosis tend to struggle more internally than someone who is open to sharing their feelings with others.
2. Focus on making healthy diet and lifestyle choices to optimize your chance of fighting cancer. Getting regular physical activity, and high-quality sleep can also lower your stress levels and regulate your hormones. For more personalized guidance in making these changes and sticking with them long term, click here to learn more about The Cancer Fighter's Diet.
3. Affirmations. The reason that affirmations work is because if you say something over and over again, you will eventually start to believe it. What you say becomes what you think. What you think becomes your reality.
Choose one (or two) affirmations that really resonate with you, and try to start and end your day with them.
For example, 'I am strong and confident that I will fight cancer!'
'Cancer doesn't define me. I am a someone fighting cancer, not a cancer patient.'
4. Yoga & Mindful Meditation – These practices can teach you how to control your thoughts and emotions. The next time you are feeling overwhelmed with emotion, try to assume a relaxation pose, such as child’s pose, and focus on your breathing. Push all thoughts out of your head for 2 minutes and simply focus on taking long breaths in and out. After you’ve settled and calmed down, you can start to bring your thoughts back to what was bothering you but in a more calm and rational way.
There are some great phone Apps, that can guide you through mediations. Meditating allows you to bring your thoughts into the here and now. This exercises and strengthens the parts of you brain which are associated with positive emotions, compassion, and creativity.
5. Exercise or any type of physical movement - it’s incredible how many chemicals are released in the brain after exercising that naturally make you happier and able to think more clearly. It also gives you motivation to eat healthier food and make healthier lifestyle choices.
6. Diet – an anti–inflammatory and low glycemic diet has been scientifically proven to improve your 'gut health', which allows you to be able to think clearly. Eating highly processed foods or food that is high in sugar or refined carbs creates inflammation and congestion in your gut, which is linked to brain fog and affects your ability to think rationally.
7. Sleep hygiene – A good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do for mental clarity and hormone regulation. Try to get into a routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day in order to stabilize your cortisol levels.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that works with certain parts of your brain which control mood, motivation, and fear.
Disrupting cortisol levels can derail some of the body’s most important functions and lead to a number of health problems.
8. Physical touch – This releases oxytocin which has a calming affect. If you live alone, grab some lotion and massage your hands and feet or your shoulders. You can also get a pet like a dog or a cat to cuddle.
9. Socialize - Social interaction has been difficult during the pandemic but it’s still important to stay connected to others. Rather than scrolling through social media, or communicating with people you may not even know, call up a friend or write them an email. The happy parts of your brain will be more stimulated this way.
10. Avoid or limit alcohol – Alcohol is a depressant and can induce anxiety. For someone struggling with anxiety, alcohol can make it worse due to the imbalances it causes in the brain.
There will always be triggers that provoke feelings of fear.
Ideally you want to teach yourself to shift your focus whenever fear starts to creep in.
The easiest way to do that is to train your brain to flip from a fearful, flustered state to a calm, logical state.
So the question is - how can we shift our focus and reframe our thinking when these fearful thoughts arise? Give the following exercise a try!
Take note of all your distressing thoughts and write them down. Especially those that pop up often because they may be underlying beliefs that you’ve been holding on to. Often what you believe to be true isn’t necessarily what is true in reality. Your beliefs often influence your thoughts, and so do your worries.
After you've written your negative thoughts down, try to use your calm and rational mind (the one you have after yoga or meditation) to ask yourself the following questions:
Is this thought helpful or harmful? Write down the word next to it.
Is this thought exaggerated or rational? Again, write it down next to it.
What emotions typically follow from this way of thinking? Depression? Stress? Anxiety? If so, write it down to acknowledge it.
A thought is just a thought. Try to acknowledge it and then let it pass, reminding yourself that it doesn't hold any value until proven to be true.
Is it good for your health to be worrying about something that isn't true or would it be better to push negative thoughts out of your head before they become your beliefs?
Create a kind and rational response to the negative thought you've written down.
The next time this thought pops into your head, allow yourself to cry or react, but then remind yourself of the rational response you created.
Let’s look at an example:
You’re in the middle of chemotherapy treatment, you’re feeling isolated and depressed due to the pandemic, and chemo is making you nauseous, tired, and weak.
Step 1 – You identify a fearful thought that keeps popping into your head:
‘This is too difficult. I can’t handle any more of these harsh treatments.
I’m not going to be able to finish chemo.’
Is this thought helpful or harmful? - harmful
Is this fear based on facts or fears? - at the moment, it’s just fears
Which emotions typically follow when I think of this? - Frustration and helplessness
Step 3 - Take a few deep breaths and create a rational response that you can repeat to yourself whenever this fearful thought arises.
'I don’t always have to feel strong and rational.
It’s been a rough year to say the least. But I’ve come this far with my chemo treatments, so why am I giving up now?’
‘I am confident that I will fight cancer.
I will find the strength to continue on with my treatments because I know they will help me in the long run.’
Believe it or not, a cancer diagnosis can be an opportunity for personal growth if you can learn to push out fearful thoughts and replace them with encouraging ones.
And why not let go of negativity that isn’t serving you, and focus your energy on things you CAN control, such as your thoughts and outlook.