Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center

Coping with Cancer

When It Comes to Cancer, There’s No Right Way to Cope

Everyone processes a cancer diagnosis differently. If you’re dealing with one of your own, it’s important to know that you can do what feels right for you.

support group - smal
Whether it’s through counseling or group sessions, it’s important to find the support you need when faced with a cancer diagnosis.

A cancer diagnosis is a uniquely personal experience. Everything from the type of cancer to your treatment protocol to the way you cope is specific to you. Just as there is no one doctor who is right for everyone and no one right treatment, there is no perfect way to manage your experience.

Treating cancer involves both psychological and physical elements. Some people experience harsh side effects. Others have tons of energy and no issues. Some people enter into the diagnosis with a vast support system, while others find they need to seek out new support. 

“The effects can be both psychological and emotional – affecting the head and the heart,” says Mona Robbins, Ph.D., a Licensed Psychologist for UT Southwestern Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Patients may experience sadness, anger, anxiety, or frustration about what’s going on and may not be quite sure what it means or how to place the feeling. Cognitive therapy can be used to help patients understand thoughts behind those feelings – anxiety about the uncertainty of the future, navigating how to care for family while caring for yourself, whom to tell about the diagnosis – these are all challenges that can cause a wide range of emotions.”

How you choose to cope and the resources you take advantage of are up to you. Here are a few possibilities to keep in mind as you consider the ways you can make the treatment process a better one for you.

Support Groups

“Peer support groups are a vital part of the coping process, as talking to others who are going through a similar situation can provide much-needed validation,” says Dr. Robbins.

You can seek support at the Simmons Cancer Center, or you can look for other groups throughout the community or even online. Some groups also welcome patients’ caregivers and family members to be part of the discussion. Various groups emphasize the patient experience. Don’t be afraid to visit multiple groups before choosing the ones that feel right for you. As your experience changes and your needs for support evolve, the decision to find a new support group is totally yours.

Professional Counseling

A cancer diagnosis is startling and can have a tremendous impact on your mental well-being. Managing depression – or just trying to stay positive – can be difficult. A psychologist or psychiatrist can help you develop more effective coping skills. “The work we do in therapy for a cancer diagnosis is really unique because there’s some truth to a lot of the fear that people are dealing with,” says Dr. Robbins. “We help patients work on learning how to sit with those fears and how to actually manage the situation at hand.”

Physical Activity

Staying active is good for the body and the mind, helping you keep strong and manage stress. Consider yoga or simple walking to get started. You can also look for a trainer who specializes in working with cancer patients.

“Getting up and out and moving can be very helpful from both a physical and emotional standpoint, but for many patients, they simply don’t have the energy or ability to do the activities they used to be able to do, and that can feel very frustrating,” Dr. Robbins explains. “We often recommend speaking to a rehabilitation clinician to help them understand what they can do, rather than focusing on the things they can’t do. Even just a bit of walking can make a big difference.”

Dietitian Support

There is no single magic food to eat, but a dietitian can help you make changes to your diet that will allow you to rediscover some of your lost energy or simply feel better as you cope with the physical effects of treatment.

“Dietitians are well versed in the science of food and can help patients discover what types of food may be a better option based on their symptoms and medications,” Dr. Robbins says.

Journaling, Blogging, Art Therapy

Detailing your journey in words or pictures can be therapeutic. Even if you never share it with anyone, a journal or sketchbook can be the perfect tool to help you manage your emotions and let you keep track of your symptoms and experiences during treatment.

Managing the physical, emotional, and spiritual impacts of a cancer diagnosis is not easy, and most people need many outlets for coping. At UT Southwestern, Dr. Robbins works to coordinate support for patients, helping them find a way to use what works for them, whether it’s a peer group, music therapy, spiritual support, or dietitian services.

“Patients often tell me privately that they feel like there is something wrong with them if they feel discouraged by their diagnosis, and that they worry about being a burden to their families,” she says. “It’s so important that they’re able to share how they feel and continue these conversations so they can find the support they need. We want patients to know they are never alone in this process.”

Have further questions about cancer? Call 214-761-3139 or email canceranswerline@utsouthwestern.edu.