AUGUSTA, Ga. – Before the books close on 2015, an estimated 1.6 million new cancer cases will be detected, according to the American Cancer Society. Any number of organs and tissues can be affected – prostate cancer being the most commonly diagnosed cancer among men; and for women, it’s breast cancer.
Most everyone knows someone battling cancer. But what happens when it’s you?
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“A diagnosis of cancer can bring about feelings of shock, disbelief, fear, uncertainty, anger, guilt, sadness and more,” said Dr. Amy Lowery-Allison, a cancer psychologist and director of the Psycho-Social Oncology Program at the Georgia Regents University Cancer Center. “People often shut down mentally when they hear the word cancer. Accepting the diagnosis and knowing what steps to take can be challenging, but working through your emotions and knowing where to seek help can make a difference.”
Lowery-Allison, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at GRU’s Medical College of Georgia, recommends these five ways to help you cope with cancer more effectively:
1. Get the facts. It’s true that knowledge is power, but delving into the world of cancer, information can be complex and overwhelming. It is important to only use accurate and reliable sources. Talk with your health care team; your oncologist, nurse navigator and other members of your treatment team are your best sources for explaining your diagnosis to you and your family. Ask them for information about your specific type and stage of cancer as well as your treatment options. It can be tempting to search the Internet, but keep in mind that while websites, chat groups and message boards can sometimes be helpful, the quality and accuracy vary widely. Check out the American Cancer Society website at cancer.org, or the GRU Cancer Center site at grhealth.org/cancer.
“When you get information, discuss it with your health care team,” Lowery-Allison said. “Remember, general information cannot take the place of medical advice from your doctor.”
2. Plan ahead. Knowing what to expect and establishing a plan to deal with each issue can be helpful. Together with your family and physicians, map out a treatment plan that’s best for you. Speak up and ask questions about your plan of care. Write down your questions and concerns beforehand and bring them with you to your appointment. You’ll want to know if a treatment may cause certain side effects so that you are prepared to handle them. You should also find out how long and how frequent your appointments will be so that you can prepare your family, friends and your employer. Having an established plan will also keep you on track as you complete treatments and follow up.
“Ask a trusted friend or family member to come with you to your first few appointments,” Dr. Lowery-Allison said. “They can help take notes and remember what was said.”
3. Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Good nutrition is vital before, during and after treatment. A healthy diet is necessary to keep your body functioning at its best. High-calorie, high-protein foods are suggested to help build up strength, particularly for cancer patients going through treatment.
“Nutritionists are a part of our Psycho-Social Oncology Service,” Lowery-Allison said. “They specialize in helping the needs of people as they are going through treatment and can help individuals struggling with nausea or loss of appetite.”
Physical activity is important, too. Research suggests that exercise, even a short walk or light stretching at home, can help you not only cope but live longer.
Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep.
“Sleep is one of the most common problems people with cancer have, but one of the most important problems to address,” said Lowery-Allison, who is also a sleep specialist. “Sleep is a time for our bodies to heal and our minds to recuperate. When we don’t get the restorative sleep we need, we suffer. Staying off electronics at night, keeping your room cool, dark and quiet and relaxing and unwinding before bed can help. If your sleep problems last for more than two weeks, see a sleep specialist. There are lots of techniques that can help you get your sleep back on track without the use of sleep medications.”
4. Develop a support system. Accept help from your family and friends.
“People often don’t know how to accept help from others, but I always tell patients, ‘Let them help!’” Lowery-Allison said.
Friends and family can run errands, make meals, provide transportation and babysit kids. Learn to accept their help. Plus, it makes others feel good to offer a hand when they don’t know what to say or do.
Sometimes you can feel alienated from friends and family who don’t understand what you’re going through. It may help to talk with people who have been in your situation. Other cancer survivors can share perspectives and relate to what you are going through. You can connect with other cancer survivors through support groups. You can find out more about local support groups at the GRU Cancer Center or the American Cancer Society.
5. Know when to get help. It is important to recognize when you or your loved one might need the help of a professional to get through this difficult time.
“Seeking help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of wisdom,” Lowery-Allison said.
Cancer takes an emotional toll on the whole family, and many people find that the burden of cancer can result in depression, anxiety, fear and difficulty functioning as you did before cancer.
“We have a whole team of specialists here to help support you with whatever need you have,” Lowery-Allison said. “It is important for every person and every family member to know they are not alone.”
The GRU Cancer Center offers a team of support through dedicated patient navigators, pastoral counselors, psychologists, social workers, music therapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, nurses, support groups, an image boutique and a family resource library.
Finding out you have cancer can be devastating, but don’t let it consume you. Take steps to cope and conquer.
The GRU Cancer Center is a multi-disciplinary academic cancer center whose mission is to reduce the burden of cancer in Georgia and across the globe through superior care, innovation and education. Its patient-centered approach includes first-in-the-nation treatment protocols, an experimental therapeutics program and specialized clinics for Phase I trials and immunotherapy. For more information, visit gru.edu/cancer.