Coping With Life as a Cancer Patient

The fear of cancer hangs over most of us like a black cloud. Indeed, almost everyone has seen a friend or relation struggle with the disease. When it finally strikes, however, most of us are still shocked.

A New Life

Cancer patients will often tell you that their diagnosis marked a watershed in their life. Things that once seemed important no longer matter, while those they took for granted became all-important. Indeed, some will joke that they now speak of “pre” and “post” cancer in the same way people used to speak of pre and post-war.

Life also changes on a more mundane level. For a start, you learn a whole new vocabulary, and soon become an expert in things you previously knew nothing about, such as “PSA levels,” “Gleason scores,” “medical imaging,” “meta-analysis,” and so on. Depending on your condition, life begins to revolve around appointments, tests, hospital visits, and the nervous wait for results.

Your relationship with your body also changes. It is now a battleground, a place in which something alien and hostile is growing, something over which you have no control. Many feel let down or betrayed by their body, others feel it is they who have done the betraying. What did I do wrong? Did I eat the wrong food? Did I expose it to dangerous substances? If I had made some kind of radical change earlier in life, would I have been spared? These are questions everybody asks, so don’t worry.

Then of course there are your relationships with people. Some are hurt to see friends drift away. Often, they do so out of fear. Cancer scares people. After a hard day at work, they do not want to sit in a bar and listen to you talking about operations and MRI scans; it is a world they want to shut out. You may be hurt by this, even shocked, but try to understand. Deep down most of us harbor primitive and irrational fears of contagion, of being somehow infected, not just by disease but by bad luck. Rationally, of course, this is madness, but human beings are only partly rational creatures.

Cancer also brings new people into your life. For a start there is the medical team: the doctors, nurses, even receptionists. Then there are your fellow cancer patients. Cancer ushers you into a new world, in some ways a pleasant one. Cancer patients can be extraordinarily kind to one another. The petty jealousies and rivalries that so often mar our relationships now seem futile. They drop away, leaving only the core personality behind. Cancer also sensitizes people (not everyone of course – an unpleasant individual remains that way), reminding them how fragile and vulnerable we truly are.

Know Your Enemy

The first rule of combat is know your enemy. If you make no effort to understand your illness, you will feel like a helpless puppet of the medical establishment, and of the disease itself. So get reading.

Cancer isn’t a single disease. In fact, there are over 100 different kinds. No matter where your cancer began, however, it involves uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The body is made up of billions of cells. Indeed, we begin as a single cell that then divides. Cell division is a complicated business and sometimes mistakes are made. A tumour is the result of these mistakes. Tumours are also known as “neoplasms,” from the Greek neo, meaning “new,” and plasma, meaning “formation,” and they can be either malignant or benign.

A benign tumour, as the word suggests, is less dangerous. They remain in that part of the body in which they arose. And they do so because they have not completely escaped the controls that keep cell growth in check. When a tumour grows and spreads, it invades and destroys healthy tissues. Worse still, it may gain access to the lymphatic system and spread through the body. This is known as “metastasis.”

Tumours are classified and named according to their site of origin; in other words, the cell or tissue from which they arose. The site of origin is important because it determines how the tumour will grow, how fast, and how it will be diagnosed. It also determines the symptoms and the therapeutic options. Benign tumours generally include the suffix –”oma.” A tumour composed of cells related to bone cells, for example, is known as an “osteoma.” Malignant tumours of the blood, however, include the suffix “–emia.”

Cancer is a scary and complicated disease, and these strange words often intimidate. But, as you can see, with a little effort they soon make sense. Rather than going online to research your illness, it would be wise to buy a book on the subject: something short, clear and simple, written by an expert. Though it has become a cliché, knowledge really is power.


Whatever your diagnosis, focus on living. As far as possible, keep doing the things you love. Continue with your bowling, fishing, tango dancing and anything else you enjoy (unless your doctor advises you not to of course). Enjoy life’s mundane pleasures as well: a hot bath, a good film, a walk in the snow. Ground yourself in the mundane. Just because you have a cancer diagnosis, that does not mean you cannot go shopping, cook dinner, or wash the car. On the contrary, it is important to do such things, to remind yourself that normal life continues beyond the chemotherapy ward. This will keep you sane, and it will reassure your loved ones – especially your children.

A major issue faced by every cancer patient is advice. Often, patients grow sick of this, or become overwhelmed. Others grow frustrated at the contradictions and disagreements and begin to wonder who to trust. In general, people mean well. Friends and work colleagues want to comfort and reassure you. For example, someone tells you that her uncle also had prostate cancer and that he cured himself through a change of diet, or that her sister’s breast cancer was cured by doctor X at his clinic in Montana, etc. Be very careful. Cancer patients desperately want an escape – and they are prepared to pay. Inevitably, that means charlatans and con-artists. Wherever there is a fear to exploit (and money to be made), there are people to exploit it.

This does not mean you shouldn’t explore alternatives. But always be wary. For a start, ask who is offering the advice. What are their qualifications? And what do they have to gain? If an experienced surgeon, with degrees from Oxford and Harvard, writes a book urging you to eat raw carrots (for example), that is advice worth listening to. What profits can he make from raw carrots? On the other hand, if someone is selling a “breakthrough herbal formula” online, at $500 per jar, be suspicious.

Join a support group at the first opportunity. Friends and loved ones are important, but they will never fully understand. If you have one of the more common cancers, there will probably be a local group just for that disease. Give it a try. If you like the people, make an effort to describe how you feel, to really open up, to laugh and cry and hug them. Keeping all your emotions bottled up will do no good at all. You could also join an online discussion forum. These are often incredibly helpful. Again, be wary of the advice on offer, but don’t be dismissive either.

The people in your life will make a big difference. Any kind of illness leaves you feeling vulnerable, and also makes you more sensitive to other personalities. Fill your life with good people, with the funny, upbeat and life-loving. Negativity and depression are poisonous. Miserable, depressing people sap your energy and your will to resist, so cut them out of your life. This may mean hurting them, but so be it. Cancer is a fight, and you need to be as strong as you can for that fight. If someone is dragging you down and lowering your morale, they must go.

Negativity and gloom need to be combatted at every opportunity. This does not mean pretending to be happy, however. And it does not mean repressing your true feelings. It is important to have a good cry now and then, and you need to be honest if you feel yourself giving up or slipping into depression. But you should make an effort to surround yourself with cheerful and uplifting things. So fill your house with cut flowers, give the walls a fresh coat of paint, tidy away any mess, buy some posters of your favorite paintings, and so on. If you are a big reader, drop the dark thrillers and try P. G. Wodehouse or Oscar Wilde instead. Also, watch lots of comedy, especially with friends and loved ones.

Don’t give up on people either. If they seem cold and distant, it is probably because they dread saying the wrong thing. You also need to be careful how you approach them. Unfortunately, you risk becoming trapped in a vicious cycle: friends and work colleagues don’t know what to say and so they avoid you, that then makes you angry and bitter, which in turn makes them avoid you even more.

First, be honest. Tell people what you’ve been diagnosed with, and admit how you feel. But avoid self-pity. Look at it this way, who do you most want to hug: the individual who tells you they are ill with a brave smile, or the one who puts his head in his hands and asks “why me?” Above all, keep a sense of humor. This is a great way of breaking the ice and relaxing people.

Finally, don’t give up. Wariness and skepticism are important, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss every promised advance. We are on the brink of a new era in cancer treatment. For example, molecular oncologists have genetically engineered killer T cells from the body’s own immune system. Like cancer cells these can live on in the bloodstream. And, like hunters or assassins, they locate and destroy cancer cells that have hidden and regrouped in the body. Immunotherapy is a whole new field of cancer treatment, one that has already achieved amazing results.

Medical nanotech is another exciting area. Soon, microscopic nanobots will deliver tiny doses of chemotherapy precisely where needed (rather than flooding the body and making people sick). Who knows what treatments we will have in six months, let alone six years.

When dealing with cancer you need to be smart, positive and hopeful. Above all, you need to be brave.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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