Dealing with a Cancer Diagnosis

Doctor viewing MRI scansStrength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. -Mohandas Gandhi

“Richard” is 62 and was diagnosed with cancer a few days ago. The oncology social worker referred him for therapy because he was extremely anxious and distraught. He was convinced that he would be unable to work during treatment because he would be so sick. Further, as someone who was self-employed, he thought it meant he would lose the successful business he had built up over many years.

Richard’s doctor prescribed some Xanax to help him cope until he was able to start therapy. Richard had yet to meet with the surgeon and the oncologist. Since it was several days until his therapy appointment, the therapist called Richard to offer a few suggestions on ways he could cope with his anxiety. The therapist started talking about how beneficial deep breathing was in helping with relaxation. Richard cut her off and said he couldn’t believe something like that could be of help. The therapist tried to explain that it wouldn’t work if he didn’t believe it could be helpful, and in fact there were evidence-based research studies that showed it was beneficial. Richard told the therapist he would call her back after all of his medical appointments were completed. He never did. This is not surprising. Richard does not like to cede control of anything in his life to anyone. Being diagnosed with cancer has completely turned his world upside down. Now he feels as though he has no control over anything.

Richard’s reaction to his diagnosis is not uncommon or abnormal. In fact, 10% to 20% of people with cancer are traumatized to such a degree that they meet diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder. However, even though Richard does not see them, he does have choices in how he responds to his illness. The choice he is taking is to create a story that his treatment is going to go miserably and that he will have to suffer with tremendous anxiety because no one knows how to help him. Is there another option?

While it is true that cancer definitely robs you of much of your control, it does not rob you of all of it. For what can Richard control? He can control how he responds to having cancer, i.e., whether he gets a second opinion, whom he takes to his appointments, whom he shares the news with, what news he shares, and how he copes with the news. Does he sit down with his significant other and cry? Talk? Avoid talking about it? Does he go off by himself? Get drunk? Drive recklessly? Get on the Internet and start researching his cancer?

No matter what Richard does, research has shown that he will do better with support and a fighting attitude. He will also feel better with more information, because knowledge is power. However, it is very important that Richard get his information from reputable sources. For every fact that can be found on the Internet, an opposite can be found as well, if you don’t know which websites are reputable. Stick with sites that are affiliated with known cancer agencies, such as cancer.org (American Cancer Society), cancer.gov (National Cancer Institute), mskcc.org (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center), mayoclinic.org (Mayo Clinic), and livestrong.org (Lance Armstrong Foundation). Do not get your information from Wikipedia. Anyone can post information onto and/or edit this site.

The irony is that for Richard to be more in control, he needs to give up some of his control. With education about his treatment options, he would find out that most people are able to work, at least to some degree, while they are on chemotherapy. By talking about his anxiety, he would most likely find that it would lessen, at least somewhat. This is typically the case; people are far more stressed when they keep everything bottled up inside. They may not want to share some of their worries with their loved ones for fear of upsetting them. Talking with someone outside of his or her family can be incredibly helpful. This is an example of how one is not “crazy” or “weak” by seeing a therapist. Conversely, this is not to say that everyone who has cancer needs to see a therapist. Dealing with cancer is one of the most stressful things that can ever happen to someone. If Richard had met with the therapist, he would have learned skills such as deep breathing and guided imagery, which would have helped him to relax in any situation. However, since Richard was unable to give up control enough to give therapy a try, he ultimately lost more control of his experience than he gained.

If you have suggestions for future topics, please post them. Thanks!

Related articles:
Managing Fear and Uncertainty while Living with Cancer
How To Fight Cancer With Social Support
“Protecting” Your Spouse or Partner When One of You Has Cancer

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT, therapist in Bellevue, Washington

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 5 comments
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  • Adelaide

    Adelaide

    April 4th, 2012 at 12:54 PM

    Isn’t it funny sometimes how those who you would not expect to lie down and give up in face of a diagnosis like this are the very ones who do? And those who you would have never expected to be a fighter somehow find the strength to look this thing in the eye and stay determined to kick its butt? Funny how a diagnosiss like this can really let you see another side of someone, sometimes what you would have totally not expected.

  • Laken

    Laken

    April 4th, 2012 at 3:39 PM

    Those who have to find out the hard way like this, with a diagnosis of cancer, that they really don’t have as much control over their own lives as they once thought, that will send them into a tailspin. They thrive so much on being in complete control, but then they are served this up, and that leaves them with a feeling of what do they have control over anymore? That is how they judged themselves and valued themselves, so what are they without that?

  • sirka

    sirka

    April 5th, 2012 at 6:46 AM

    Yes this can be devastating, but it does not have to be the end of the world either.

    It can be a wonderful time to find out who you are and to focus on those things in life that you love the most.

    A diagnosis like this is not the time to bemoan the loass of control, but rather the time to take the reins and enjoy the life that you have lived and the rest of your life that you have been given.

  • andy

    andy

    April 5th, 2012 at 11:54 AM

    its never going to help if you think the health problem will win and not you.I had this terrible accident when i was in college and stayed hospitalized for weeks but I certainly believe my hope and willingness played a role in my recovery.

  • Savitri

    Savitri

    July 8th, 2012 at 6:59 PM

    The people who deal worst with a diagnosis tend to be health professionals who believe that they will never be patients.Many of them fall apart in ways far more significant than those they spent a career treating.Those who are used to power are reluctant to believe they can share so much with those who do not have their power. Medical training should look at and address the God complex that leads to this state of affairs.

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