How to cope with Cancer?

Most people value the care that is being provided by their health care team, but there are also those who want to play an active role in coping with their illness. Dr. Jimmie Holland, who has been involved with the care of cancer patients for nearly 3 decades now, offers some useful ideas on how to cope with cancer. These ideas have been categorized as those beliefs and attitudes that are evidently helpful (the Do’s) and those that may prove harmful (the Don’ts).


  1. Rely on coping methods that may have helped you resolve problems and issues in the past. Understand that most individuals need to have family members, friends or others around them who will be able to provide the required help when needed. You need to find someone with whom you may be comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings. In case you do not wish to talk about the illness, you may notice that meditation, relaxation, listening to music, or other activities that comfort you are helpful. Use methods that may have helped you earlier, but in case what you are doing does not help, you need to find a different coping method, or seek counseling.
  2. Try to cope with your cancer “one day at a time”. Try not to think about what may happen in the future. The task of dealing with cancer is less overwhelming when you divide that into “day bites” that are easier to manage. This way, it becomes easier for you to make the most of each day, irrespective of your illness.
  3. Rely on self-help or support groups if you feel better because of them. Conversely, if any group is making you feel worse, you need to leave that group.
  4. Try to find a doctor who allows you to discuss all your concerns. Ensure that there exists a feeling of trust and mutual respect. Let them know that you want to work with them as a partner in your treatment. Talk to them about expected side effects and be ready to face them. Knowing about the problems that you may face in the future often makes it easier to deal with them as and when they happen.
  5. Explore religious and spiritual beliefs and practices, for instance prayer, which you may have found helpful in the past. In case you are not a religious or spiritual person, you can seek support from any other belief system that you may find useful. You may find them comforting. They may also help you find meaning in your present experiences related to your illness.
  6. Maintain a proper record of your doctor’s contact numbers, treatment dates, symptoms, lab values, scans, x-rays, medications, side effects and general medical status. It is important to have complete details about your cancer and its treatment and no one else can maintain such records better than you.
  7. Maintain a journal if you feel the need to express your feelings and vent your frustrations. It can help you work around your experiences and you will be surprised by how useful and therapeutic they turn out to be.


  1. Trust the conventional thinking that “cancer equals death.” Currently, there are around 11 Americans alive who have had cancer earlier.
  2. Hold yourself responsible for causing the cancer. No scientific evidence is available which links specific personalities, painful life events and emotional status to the development of cancer. Even when you may have increased your risk of developing cancer by smoking or some other habit, it still won’t help to blame yourself or hold yourself responsible.
  3. Feel guilty when you are not able to maintain a positive outlook all the time, especially if you don’t feel alright. The belief “patients need to be positive to overcome cancer” is not true. Understand that low periods will come, irrespective of how good you may be at coping. No evidence exists to prove that those periods adversely affect your health or contribute to tumor growth. However, if they persist or become severe, you need to seek help.
  4. Suffer in silence. Try not to do everything on your own – seek support from family members, friends, doctor, nurse, clergy, or people you meet in support groups who can better understand what you may be going through. When you are around people who care about you and who constantly support and encourage you, it is more likely that you will be able to cope better and take proper care of yourself.
  5. Feel embarrassed to seek counseling support from a mental health professional for depression or anxiety that may be interfering with your sleep, eating habits, ability to function normally, ability to concentrate, or in case you think that your distress levels are getting out of control.
  6. Try to keep your symptoms (physical or psychological) and worries to yourself and choose not to share the same with the person who may be close to you. Request this person to accompany you to doctor appointments to discuss your treatment options. Research has shown that it is often difficult for people to hear or absorb information if they are feeling anxious. A family member or friend may help you recall what was said and also interpret it in a better manner. In a practical sense, your loved one or friend can also get you home after your appointment or medical test.
  7. Choose an alternative therapy in place of your regular treatment. In case you choose to use a treatment that was not recommended by your doctor, make sure you rely on those that may not be harmful. Check if the alternative treatment can be used in a safe manner alongside the standard therapies (as a complimentary treatment), in order to augment your quality of life. Make sure you inform your doctor about alternative treatments that you may be using along with your regular therapies because there are some that should not be used with radiation treatment or chemotherapy. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of alternative or complementary therapies with a person you can trust and who can analyze these therapies more objectively as compared to what you may be able to achieve under stress. Safe and helpful methods include social, psychological and spiritual approaches, and often doctors encourage patients to use them. Activities such as meditation and relaxation are safe and helpful.