Living With Cancer

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Being diagnosed with cancer prompts many questions. This overview of the concerns commonly experienced by individuals coping with cancer may provide some answers.

After Diagnosis

It is normal to feel depressed, overwhelmed, and fearful when you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer. You may have questions about what having cancer will mean for you. While each individual's experience with cancer is unique here are a few things to bear in mind. Progress has been made in effectively treating many forms of cancer so that now over half of all people diagnosed with cancer will be cured by treatment. Of those who are not entirely cured, many live for years with their cancer well controlled. They take medicine and watch their diet, just as people with heart disease or diabetis must, but otherwise they lead full and active lives. Cancer no longer equals death. Most cancer can be treated. Today there are approximately 8 million cancer survivors in America (American Cancer Society) and that number is growing because more people are living with cancer than are dying from it.

Tremendous emotional upheaval is common after being diagnosed with cancer. Many cancer patients experience feelings disbelief, shock, fear, and anger. They may also feel overwhelmed by the girth of information about their cancer and their treatment options, by the decisions they are required to make, and by the sudden changes in their lives. It takes time to accept and understand the diagnosis. As overwhelming and painful as a diagnosis of cancer is initially, many cancer survivors say that their struggle against cancer gave them an opportunity to re-evaluate their lives and to find strengths and abilities that they hadn't known they possessed.

"The most important thing I learned from my cancer experience is the conviction that I had it in me to go on when I felt like giving up. My intuition, evident in that insistent voice inside my head, served me well. Don't be afraid to trust your own feelings, discuss them with your doctor, and know that you have the determination it takes to fight cancer - and win." -- Tamah, Breast Cancer Survivor, excerpted from the Breast Cancer Survivor Network.

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People cope with cancer in their individual ways, but generally after the initial shock of diagnosis and the beginning of treatment, most people are able to resume living as they did prior to cancer. "For the first few months, I thought about breast cancer every day and how it might affect my life. I soon discovered that having cancer really did not change me, except to make me more aware of the importance of friends and family, and to appreciate each day. It also exposed me to a world that I would not otherwise have known, the cancer community and the many thousands of breast cancer survivors like myself, who have gone on to live long, and productive lives." Excerpt from Linda Jackson's Breast Cancer Survival web site.

Many cancer survivors assert that the support of family, friends, doctors, and other cancer patients and survivors helped them find the inner strength to keep fighting the disease. If you or a loved one need help coping, there are many resources to turn to. You might ask your health care provider about a support group in your area, or you might visit our Cancer Support Resource Page for Web-based cancer support information. To learn how others have lived with and fought cancer you can visit CancerQuilt, a site that provides the personal stories of adult cancer patients from all walks of life or Shared Experience which seeks to help people understand what it is like to have cancer and what effects the treatment has on a person's body, outlook, and lifestyle.

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Cancer is a very complex disease, and while a possitive attitude may improve the quality of one's life, people's attitudes don't cause or cure cancer. Currently no research exists that proves a person's attitude will guarantee survival. It is important not to blame one's self for the cancer.

Further, having a positive attitude doesn't mean never feeling sad, stressed, uncertain, or overwhelmed. The most helpful thing to do with painful feelings is to acknowledge and deal with them. Hiding negative feelings can interfere with an individual's ability to feel hopeful, positive, and more in control of their life.

People with cancer do not neccessarily become hopelessly depressed, though it is normal for them to mourn the loss of the themselves as a healthy person after being diagnosed. However, if someone's emotional upset or sadness is long-lasting or gets in the way of day-to-day things, they may have clinical depression. About one in four people with cancer will develop clinical depression, (American Cancer Society) which may interfere with their ability to function and follow medical regimens. Depression in people with cancer is treated much the same way it is treated in the general population, with medication, psychotherapy, a combination of both, and sometimes other specialized treatments. Not only do these interventions improve people's psychological condition, but they also reduce suffering and enhance the quality of life. If you have concerns about depression please consult your doctor.

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Family & Friends

Cancer affects not just the individual diagnosed, but everyone close to that person. It is important to be open about your cancer with those close to you. This will enable them to understand your situation and be supportive. Trying to keep your illness a secret will increase your stress level, deprive you of the support of your family and friends, and may alienate those close to you when they discover you've kept your diagnosis from them.

When you do confide your illness to family members and friends be prepared for a variety of responses. Many people may not know what to say initially. Some may become awkward or overly considerate. Others may withdraw and distance themselves due to their own fears. Most usually, whatever a persons initial response may be, they will want to help. Coming up with specific ways your family and friends can assist you will not only lessen your stress, but also their feelings of anxiety and helplessness.

The roles of family members will shift as tasks and responsibilities are redistributed to accommodate the needs of the individual fighting cancer. It is important to talk about these changes and the way they affect the family unit. Even in the most loving families feelings of resentment are not uncommon when one person is unable to maintain the responsiblities they once did, particularly when the situation is long lasting. People my also experience anger at the changes taking place and fears about the future. Everyone copes with stress in their unique way. The person with cancer is not responsible for the reactions of those around them to their illness. The most productive way to handle feelings, particularly those that are unpleasant, is to talk about them so they can be difused.

If you need to talk to a child about cancer it is best to do so in a clear direct manner. Share information in small ammounts and in a manner that is appropriate to the child's age. It's important to allow children to ask questions and to express their feelings about the information they are receiving. When children do not receive accurate, understandable information they will make up explainations on their own and may feel they are some how responsible for the changes taking place around them. Child psychologists and support groups are resources you might consider to help a child cope when someone they love has been diagnosed with cancer.

Living with cancer is a day to day, moment to moment process. While living with cancer is different for each individual it is important to remember that you are not alone.

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