How to Recognize and Cope with Cancer Distress

Cancer and Distress Go Hand-In-Hand

A typical reaction that we have to cancer is to become distressed. When feeling high levels or constant distress, you often feel as though you can’t handle the problems that you are facing. Stress is manifested in many different ways; mentally, physically, socially, or spiritually—or in any combination of these ways.

If you experience distress from a cancer diagnosis your distress may come from the demands of the treatment itself, it may derive from practical issues, like finding transportation to and from your treatment appointments or providing care for family members who depend on you. For many of us, financing treatments or not being able to work is stressful, making your life more difficult.

Your distress can also come from the physical problems caused by your cancer or the side effects caused by your treatments. 

Some level of distress is “normal,” however if it becomes pervasive and consistent, it can disrupt your life and reduce the overall quality of your life.

Individuals experience their distress; differently, we don’t necessarily experience our distress in the same way others might.   Distress often looks different from person to person, but the most common signs include: 

•    Sadness or fear

•    Anger or feeling irritable

•    Inability to sleep, experiencing nightmares or an inability to stay awake

•    Avoiding friends and family

Failure to complete tasks

•    Inability to concentrate or to remember things

•    Physical problems, such as unexplained aches and pain

•    Financial worries

•    Doubts about your faith

None of these signs are uncommon, even in healthy “normal” people, so If you find that these feelings come and go, there’s no reason to be concerned. However, if they last for a long time or start to interfere with your life, it’s important to recognize them as a problem and get help dealing with them.

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is hard enough without having to deal with additional distress as well. Even if your distress isn’t severe, it might be helpful to:

•    Talk to your cancer care team, including your doctors, nurses, and navigators. Your team wants you to be able to get through your treatment successfully and to adjust to life as a Cancer Thriver. Sharing your concerns and your problems with your treatment team can help them support you more effectively.

•    Connect with other Cancer Thrivers. There’s good evidence that finding a community of other Cancer Thrivers and sharing your feelings honestly, concerns and questions will help you find your path and improve your quality of life. Consider attending a support group or an educational program.

•    Get counseling.  Feeling distressed is normal, it doesn’t mean that you are mentally ill.  Speaking with a counselor, a social worker or a psychologist often helps people respond to their confusion and their emotions about having cancer and dealing with the challenges cancer throws at you.  You can ask your oncology team or another Cancer Thriver to recommend a counselor who understands the difficulties that come with being diagnosed with cancer and from using many of the current cancer treatments.