Written by Sarah Kown
Reviewed for medical accuracy by Jake Prigoff
Fear may be the most common emotion that comes along with a cancer diagnosis. It’s completely normal to have a fear of cancer, death, unsuccessful cancer treatments, or the return of cancer later on after successful treatments.
There are many emotional stages of a cancer diagnosis, as well as many things that can aggravate your worries including stress, loneliness, or isolation. There are also triggers like new physical symptoms, which you may automatically assume are cancer-related, even years after you finish treatment.
Here are 10 ways to maintain a healthy mind, which is essential to be able to think clearly and cope with the fear of cancer rather than have it consume our thoughts. Try to determine which techniques work best for you.
- Cut out what’s not serving you. Focusing on becoming the healthiest version of yourself doesn't only involve making healthy dietary or exercise changes, it also means lowering stress and anxiety levels. Cancer and emotions go hand in hand, so this could mean leaving toxic friendships, or cleaning up your social media pages to reflect more positive content. Some great instagrammers to follow are @simplysophiedesigns for daily truths with fun illustrations, @_lisaolivera for therapist-approved daily quotes, and @mentalhealthquotess for additional inspiration. You’re not alone and you deserve to cultivate a social life (online and in person) that feels full, positive, and emotionally satisfying.
- Speak up. Facing your diagnosis requires emotional honesty, during the many emotional stages of a cancer diagnosis. Journaling or creative writing might be a good first step to access how you’re feeling, but they aren’t always enough. Speaking to another person can help you process the emotions you’re facing, feel more empowered or less alone, and also problem-solve solutions for coping with some heavier feelings. Even if you don’t want to speak with a friend or family member, there are professional therapists, cancer coaches (our partners Beacon Advocates and Missy Grace at Vigeo Coaching are great places to start) and support groups out there for you. You can also check out our OneVillage community for live chat and forum discussions with people in situations just like yours.
Say daily affirmations. Affirmations can help you change your mindset throughout the experience. Saying something positive over and over again can help rewire your brain. Choose one (or two) that really resonates with you and start and end your day with them. If you need help coming up with one, there are positive TikTok affirmations you can come across in your daily scrolling from people like @thevanessamcneal, @trevorcarroll_, and @balancedmonday.
One of my favorites is – I am strong and confident that I will fight cancer!
Repeating your affirmation can also be helpful before and after a stressful situation like a follow up appointment with your oncologist. Set your intention beforehand that you’re going to be confident and advocate for yourself during your consultation.
- Practice mindful meditation. These practices can teach you how to control your thoughts of cancer and emotions throughout all of the stages of a cancer diagnosis. If you’re like me and need a reminder to set aside time for meditation, there are some great phone apps, which will send you reminders and guide you through them. Meditation allows you to bring your thoughts into the here and now. This exercises and strengthens the parts of your brain which are associated with positive emotions, compassion, and creativity.
Exercise, exercise, exercise. Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous activities like lifting heavy weights or running a marathon. Trying to walk 10,000 steps or even standing up to stretch once an hour can make a world of difference. It’s incredible how many chemicals are released in the brain after exercising that naturally make you happier and able to think more clearly.
The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with cancer and emotion, try to assume a relaxation pose, such as child’s pose, and focus on your breathing. Push all the thoughts out of your head for two 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.
- Change your diet. An anti–inflammatory and low glycemic diet are scientifically proven to help keep your body in a happy normalized state which allows you to be able to think clearly. Stabilizing your sugar levels also stabilizes your mood. For more dietary tips, check out our article “Getting the Right Nutrition and Meal Delivery Resources for Cancer Patients.”
- Improve your sleep hygiene. A good night’s sleep is one of the most important things you need to focus on. Get into a routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day to stabilize your cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that works with certain parts of your brain that control mood, motivation, and fear - including the fear of cancer. Disrupting cortisol levels can derail some of the body’s most important functions and lead to a number of health problems, including anxiety and depression.
- Find ways to increase physical touch. This releases oxytocin which has a calming effect. If you live alone, you can rub your hands and feet or your shoulders, get a pet like a dog or a cat, or find a massage therapist.
- 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.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant and can induce anxiety. For someone struggling with anxiety, alcohol can make it worse. Some folks like to have a cup of tea to help relax. Others have used medical marijuana with good results - of course, only if it’s legal and available in your state.
These practices will not be fool-proof. There will always be triggers that provoke negative, anxious feelings, so it’s okay if you do all of the above and still don’t always feel your best. Incorporating these practices will hopefully lessen these feelings and rewire your brain to have more consistent positive thoughts even in the face of something as scary as cancer.
You are so much more resilient than you know!
Learn More About Own Your Cancer Coaching
Sarah Kown and Christine Squires created Own Your Cancer Coaching to help people throughout their cancer journey by providing them with the knowledge and tools they will need to optimize control of their health. Sarah, a Medical Physicist and Radiation Oncology Therapist, and Christine, a Behavioral Health Counselor, are working together to create guided course content that will help patients make transformative change in unique and practical ways.
Learn More with OneVillage
OneVillage is the first online wishlist, planning tool, and specialty product retailer for cancer patients and their supporters. A cancer diagnosis is worrying enough - you should feel confident that there are resources out there to help. Whatever your questions or concerns are, OneVillage is here to support you.