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The psychological impact of cancer and some tips how to manage it – Part 1


Part 1: Receiving the diagnosis



Working with people who are living with cancer and beyond can be a huge challenge both physiologically and psychologically. I will be writing a collection of 3 blogs from a psychological perspective, that discusses the stages people go through, diagnosis, going through treatment and lastly life after cancer treatment.

The first of these blogs will look at the psychological impact of receiving a diagnosis and offer some suggestions to help move through this part of your cancer journey.

Nothing can strike fear, anxiety, depression, grief, or overwhelm you, more quickly than a cancer diagnosis. Your life has been chucked up in the air and come down in a different order. Often what’s worse is your life is continually chucked into the air depending on lab results, CT scans, responses to treatment or side effects. Your entire identity is shook up!

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, unease and worry. The people that I see tend to have unmanageable fearful thoughts, which lead to the symptoms such as, shallow breathing, increased muscle tension, tiredness, less energy, increased anxiety and they keep going round and round in this circle. It can increase pain and make sleep difficult so affects your quality of life.

Anxiety affects both patients and families. Feeling anxious is a normal & healthy response to cancer, how could you not feel anxious?

The key is to manage anxiety, so it doesn’t get out of hand, and I shall talk through some techniques here, that are fairly simple and don’t take up too much time, but if you do them, they are effective!


When first given a cancer diagnosis, our first thought is we want to do something or just fix it; but let’s just put the brakes on for a short while. Give yourself time. Review what your doctor has said, what tests are required, what the initial treatment plan options are for you. Think about it by yourself or talk through it with someone or write it down if you regularly journal; use the best method for you to arrive at an initial understanding of your diagnosis.


Once you have thought about it, write down all the questions you can think of, discuss them with family/friends and get their input. Discuss with your Doctor, if you can, take a trusted friend or family member with you -even if these things were discussed at your diagnosis, chances are, you didn’t hear them.


You may well get a whole load of information about treatment options, reports, prescriptions, appointments and other resources. Keep all your information together, having this information organised will give you a sense of control when your world feels out of control.


Draw a triangle, on outer left side, write I, outer right side write E, centre line, write P. I-=inhale, E=exhale, P=pause. Use this tool daily. Take a deep breathe in and then blow out. INHALE slowly whilst saying inhale silently. EXHALE slowly whilst saying exhale silently. PAUSE 1,2,3,4, then start again


These are thoughts which we continually think about and grow like a snowball. The trick is to catch them before they get bigger. Write down your thoughts, one at a time, see if you can identify ONE thought which started the chain reaction which made you feel so anxious. Keep identifying & writing your thoughts down. Now start with the initial thought and write down a new thought that doesn’t result in you feeling anxious. What new thought could you substitute for the first anxious thought? These new thoughts are confident and empowering. Continue working through your lists of thoughts.


There are a whole range of options, from breathing exercises all the way through to hypnosis, if you would like to try some relaxation techniques, take a look at my website www.paininthemind.co.uk


Refuse to play the what if game! What if cancer has spread/ What if I can’t look after myself? One ‘what if’ thought soon spirals into anxiety.

Awareness is the way to stop, ask yourself THESE 2 QUESTIONS- Is this thought helping me or hurting me? Is this thought moving me forward or holding me back?


What would feel really good right now? A cup of tea, another pillow, listening to some music? Doing some colouring? Looking at photos? Phoning a friend?


Say to yourself, I am choosing to…. Choosing is active and empowering. Substitute I am choosing for I have to do, I must do, I should do


This can be anything, but visualisation is a good distraction. However, it needs practice before you need it. For example, if having a medical procedure, think about your favourite place, think about absolutely everything about it, colours, smells, textures, noises etc., practice so you have really good recall of this place


Stop those anxious thoughts in their tracks, look around you, what can you see right now, what colour is the floor, the walls, how many tables are here, what are the light fittings like, are they dusty? What’s the person like next to you. Being very focussed on another set of thoughts interrupts a chain of anxious thoughts.


Yes, you can! You can handle what’s going on for the next 5 mins, you can do anything 5 mins at a time.


This brings perspective, ask how am I in the big picture relating to friends, family, my community, life in general?


See how long you can blank out your mind, not thinking any thought, can you do it for 5 secs, 10 secs…longer? It’s helpful to let your mind rest. The more you use this tool, the longer you can sustain your thought break


Some people find it helps to write down their thoughts & feelings and re-reading them at a later date can be helpful

I hope that you have found some of these suggestions helpful. As with everything, some may be more useful than others for you at this particular time. Please feel free to share with me any tips that you find useful.

My next blog (part 2) on the psychological impact of cancer will focus on getting through treatment and managing depression which is a common feeling at this stage in your cancer journey.

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