The first few months of radiation therapy can be a whirlwind. Your day-to-day life may look completely different compared to pre-diagnosis. You may also be coping with a host of unprecedented challenges.
Luckily, there are ways to find a new “normal” and adjust to life with cancer.
In this blog, we consult Tammy Weitzman, founder of the Center for Loss and Grief Counseling in Charlotte. Building on 22 years of experience working in cancer centers across North America, Weitzman examines the ways cancer can impact your:
Weitzman also offers specific, concrete tips for acclimating to life with cancer. These tips will improve your quality of life and help you focus on what matters most: recovery.
How Life With Cancer Can Impact Your Emotional Wellness
If you’re feeling unusually sad or stressed in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, you’re not alone.
According to Weitzman, wildly shifting emotions are a “typical human reaction to difficult medical problems.”
Though feeling worried or down is a normal response to a cancer diagnosis, you must be mindful of the warning signs of anxiety and depression. Experienced by nearly 1 in 2 oncology patients, these mental illnesses are serious conditions that can impact your quality of life.
Tips for Coping With Emotional Changes
Maybe you’re struggling with nightly panic attacks. Or, maybe you can’t motivate yourself to get out of bed in the morning.
Whatever emotional challenges you’re facing, know that you don’t have to do this alone.
Tip #1: Get Immediate Help
If you’re considering suicide, don’t wait to get assistance. You can receive free, anonymous support through the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting “988.” You can also visit 988lifeline.org.
Tip #2: Speak With a Professional
Schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist, therapist, or another member of your cancer care team to discuss your symptoms and create a treatment plan.
“Anxiety and depression are mitigated by a combination of counseling and occasionally medication,” says Weitzman.
“In my practice, I focus treatment with a variety of modalities including behavioral activation, cognitive behavioral therapies, and mindfulness-based approaches.”
How Life With Cancer Can Impact Your Social Wellness
After sharing your diagnosis, some loved ones may become obsessively involved in your cancer journey while others cut ties altogether.
According to Weitzman, these extreme reactions stem from “fear and confusion.”
“People in the life of a person with cancer often don’t know what to say,” she explains.
But rather than be open and honest – admitting that they’re at a loss for words – loved ones may engage in unhelpful, toxic behavior.
Other social changes you may notice in the wake of a cancer diagnosis include:
Fewer Social Outings: After beginning treatment, you may feel too tired or sick to enjoy the activities you once loved.
Difficulty Relating to Others: When faced with something as grave as cancer, your friends’ concerns about getting promoted or planning a wedding may seem trivial.
Romantic Dysfunction: The prospect of telling a prospective partner about your diagnosis may stop you from dating. Changes in your physical appearance may also discourage you from having sex during radiotherapy.
Tips for Coping With Social Changes
Cancer is a very isolating disease, with over half of oncology patients reporting feelings of loneliness³.
Though you cannot control how your friends and family react to your diagnosis, you can take steps to protect yourself from social isolation.
Tip #1: Join a Support Group
During the first few months of cancer treatment, many patients tend to “withdraw from others and activities,” says Weitzman.
Support groups can dramatically improve your quality of life by providing a safe, nurturing space where you can connect with people who understand what you’re going through.
Tip #2: Ask For Help
According to Weitzman, it can be hard for cancer patients to ask for help, especially since “our culture values self-sufficiency and individuality in solving one’s own problems.”
But letting loved ones know what you need gives them the opportunity to feel useful. This can ease some of the awkwardness and tension.
How Life With Cancer Can Impact Your Intellectual Wellness
Intellectual wellness refers to your ability to problem solve, learn new things, and express yourself creatively.
Unfortunately, the stress of cancer and the side effects of cancer treatment can negatively impact your ability to think clearly. For instance, you may become easily distracted and struggle to concentrate on a single task.
Other intellectual changes experienced by many people living with cancer include:
Decreased Work Performance: Because of treatment-related side effects like fatigue and brain fog, many oncology patients report drops in workplace productivity.
Disinterest in Hobbies: Changes in cognition may affect your ability to enjoy hobbies like reading, completing crossword puzzles, and playing board games.
Executive Dysfunction: Your executive functioning skills (e.g. the ability to handle frustration, recall multi-step directions, stay on task, self-monitor) may also suffer during your cancer journey.
Tips for Coping With Intellectual Changes
Perhaps you’re experiencing pervasive memory issues. Or, you can no longer hit tight deadlines at work. No matter the intellectual problems you’re facing, there are ways to cope.
Tip #1: Evaluate Your Career Goals
With endless medical appointments and nagging symptoms, cancer can make nurturing a career difficult.
If you’re struggling to keep pace at your full-time gig, evaluate your goals. Maybe now isn’t the time to apply for a promotion. Instead, you may consider dropping down to part-time or stepping away from your job altogether.
Tip #2: Find a New Outlet
If you do choose to leave your job, you may experience a “loss of identity,” says Weitzman.
It’s important to mourn and grieve this loss. But, when you’re ready, Weitzman suggests re-focusing your energies on other ways to express a sense of purpose.
Examples of finding renewed purpose include:
Exercising when possible and with a doctor’s approval
Busying yourself with movies, music, or books
Nurturing relationships with friends, family, and pets
How Life With Cancer Can Impact Your Financial Wellness
For many oncology patients, the cost of living with cancer is a pressing concern.
In the months after diagnosis, you will likely experience some serious budget changes, including:
Medical Expenses: Even with health insurance, you will be expected to pay copays on medical appointments, diagnostic tests, treatment sessions, and more.
Loss of Wages: Depending on your cancer’s severity, you may be forced to leave your job. Your spouse may also need to step back from their career to offer support at home.
Home and Childcare: If you’re unable to care for your family and home, you may need to hire an aide to provide assistance.
Tips for Coping With Financial Changes
According to Weitzman, the financial concerns experienced by individuals living with cancer can be overwhelming. But there are ways to address these budgetary issues.
Tip #1: Apply for FMLA
In most work situations, people with cancer are protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
As Weitzman notes, FMLA allows oncology patients to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave without the threat of losing their job.
“This can be taken in hours, days, or weeks and helps patients maintain a balance between work and medical appointments,” she says.
Tip #2: Research Job Benefits
If you must leave your career completely, look into the protections offered by your employer.
“Some people are fortunate to have disability insurance through their jobs,” says Weitzman.
Disability insurance replaces a portion of your income when you can’t work because of an injury or illness.
Some employers also offer long-term care insurance, which helps people with long-lasting illnesses pay for non-medical care like a home health aide.
How Life With Cancer Can Impact Your Marital Wellness
For many couples, the cancer journey is a sobering reminder to treasure each and every moment together.
But watching your partner endure a serious illness can also be incredibly stressful.
Sometimes, this stress can spark conflict. Other times, it can cause the healthy spouse to become quiet and withdrawn as they “try to hide fears of losing their partner,” says Weitzman.
Other martial changes you may experience include:
Shifting Responsibilities: If radiotherapy leaves you fatigued, your spouse will need to handle household tasks like cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Depending on the severity of your cancer, your husband or wife may also need to fill a caregiver role.
Changed Future Plans: Cancer forces many couples to put plans for retirement, traveling, and even parenthood on hold. These major life changes can cause resentment in the relationship.
Intimacy Issues: Some side effects of radiation therapy, like erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness, can cause intimacy issues. Both partners may be reluctant to discuss these problems, especially if sex wasn’t openly discussed prior to diagnosis.
Tips for Coping With Marital Changes
Cancer affects everything, including marriage. Some studies even suggest that the stress of a cancer diagnosis can increase the likelihood of separation and divorce⁵.
Fortunately, there are ways you can continue nurturing your relationship while living with cancer.
Tip #1: Encourage Your Spouse To Seek Support
Support groups aren’t just for cancer patients; they’re also for spouses.
According to Weitzman, partners often suppress their anxieties to put on a brave face for the spouse with cancer. Thus, having a nonjudgmental space to “share hidden thoughts and fears” is invaluable.
Tip #2: Give Partners Purpose
If you have recently started cancer treatment, your husband or wife may feel completely lost.
The solution? “Be very specific about what you want your partner to help with,” says Weitzman. “Partners cope best when they have something practical to do. They need to keep busy in a purposeful way.”
Tip #3: Offer Praise and Appreciation
If you’re living with cancer, you may not know how to support your spouse, especially if they are handling many of the day-to-day responsibilities.
However, according to Weitzman, verbalizing how thankful you are for your partner goes a long way. “Praise and appreciation are very powerful gifts to give to a caregiver,” she says.
How Life With Cancer Can Impact Your Family Wellness
If you’re a parent living with cancer, your biggest concern may be how your diagnosis will affect your children.
As Weitzman explains, parents with minor children “fret over ruining their childhood, making them grow up too fast, or imposing caretaking chores on them.”
For better or for worse, some of these fears are founded. It’s inevitable that your relationship with your kids will change because of your condition. For example, you may notice:
Behavioral Regression: In response to the stress of your cancer diagnosis, your child may act younger than they are. They may start sucking their thumb, wetting the bed, pitching tantrums, or wanting to sleep with you at night.
Role Reversal: If your child is a teenager or adult, they may act as your caregiver. This role reversal can cause confusing feelings for the person with cancer, says Weitzman. “Parents often believe it’s their job to care for their child, not the other way around,” she says.
Tips for Coping With Family Changes
A cancer diagnosis has the power of changing the relationship between you and your child.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to cope with these changes and create a new “normal” for your family.
Tip #1: Be Honest and Communicative
In an attempt to shelter their kids, many parents withhold the truth of their diagnosis.
But “a child’s hearing becomes very acute to conversations that a parent believes they don’t hear, are hidden, or over their heads,” says Weitzman.
As such, oncology patients must be honest, communicative, and include their children in the cancer journey.
How you talk about cancer with your child will depend on his or her age. A five-year-old, for instance, may be told that their parent is sick, but is taking medicine to get better. Comparatively, a 14-year-old may be told specific details regarding the cancer type, stage, and outlook.
Tip #2: Allocate Family Time
Your routine may look very different during treatment. You may spend most of your day in bed or bouncing between medical appointments.
Though it can be challenging to allocate one-on-one time with your child, make this a priority. If you don’t have the energy to sit at the dining room table, eat dinner together on the couch. Or, watch television together each night before bed.
“Children will imagine the worst and blame themselves” when a parent is diagnosed with cancer, says Weitzman. So, it’s crucial to help them feel loved and supported.
Explore all of the available cancer resources to help you cope in each of the areas above
Get clarity on the cost of cancer and all of the payment options available to you
SERO Is Here To Help You Acclimate to Life With Cancer
At SERO, we understand that adjusting to life with cancer is no easy feat. After coming to terms with your diagnosis, you must face extraordinary challenges like explaining cancer to your children, coping with anxiety and depression, and even leaving your career.
Though the road ahead may seem daunting, there is “tangible, concrete support available,” says Weitzman. After working with oncology patients for nearly two decades, she suggests tapping the resources offered by your cancer care team. SERO, for example, provides comprehensive tools designed to help you recover.
To learn more about the services we offer, call 704-333-7376 today.
1. Prevalence of Depression and Anxiety Among Cancer Patients. (2014).