Coping with Emotions When You Have Lung Cancer
A lung cancer diagnosis can bring up many emotions. Caryn Blanton, MSW, LCSW an oncology social worker at Rush University, shares some tips for coping with emotions and keeping yourself emotionally healthy.
Accepting Your Emotions
It is completely normal to worry. People with a cancer diagnosis often feel their world is turned upside-down, because it often is, and not just at the time of diagnosis. Allow yourself to mourn the loss of what you expected your life to be, or what you think it should be or will be. Work toward finding peace with what it is and how you can not only survive, but thrive. Coping with illness can feel like a full-time job, and anyone who has been through treatment knows it can take a psychological toll.
Here's what you can do:
Talk about it.
- Share with friends and family about how you're feeling.
- Seek peer support through groups like the Lung Cancer Survivors Community on Inspire.
- Find a therapist who has experience working with clients who are experiencing life-limiting illness.
As humans, we need to release the psychological distress we're feeling to those we trust. This helps us feel connected to the world around us. If there is no outlet, it can become all-consuming, and that makes everything harder. If you begin to feel your emotional well-being is becoming unmanageable, another option might be to contact your physician or a psychiatrist to see what medications might be available. There is no shame in accessing support. For many, it's one of the most important things we can do to take care of ourselves.
Identify what is within your control.
The easiest way to do this is by educating yourself.
Ask your medical team questions, even if you find yourself asking the same ones over and over again. Living with cancer can be overwhelming, and when we're overwhelmed, it's harder to process and retain information.
Educate yourself on your diagnosis and treatment options, and know that you can always make adjustments down the line. Your treatment decisions are within your control.
Keep an open dialogue with your medical team as well as your support system. Have honest discussions with your loved ones and healthcare providers not only about how you're feeling but also your quality of life goals. Focus on your goals, especially on bad days.
When emotional energy is impacted by the physical, it feels like a double-whammy. In addition to seeking support from loved ones and maybe a therapist, tuning into your basic needs is the primary way to help keep your energy up. Focus on breath, sleep, nutrition and exercise:
Often people living with lung cancer have shortness of breath, and feeling short of breath can cause anxiety. Reminding yourself there is a physical cause can sometimes help ease your mind. If that's not enough, belly breathing (also called deep-breathing), progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery can help calm the mind when anxiety hits.
Getting enough sleep is a key component to keeping your emotional energy up. When you don't get enough sleep, it can be hard to manage your emotions. Try to get at least eight hours of sleep a night. If you find that taking naps during the day makes it hard to sleep at night, try shortening your naps or resting without falling asleep. Avoid electronics with screens two hours prior to going to bed as these tell your brain it's time to be awake.
Making sure to eat regular meals is also important. Eat a good balance of nutritious foods, as well as some that provide you comfort. Learn more about nutrition and lung cancer.
Move around as much as you can. Keeping your physical strength up through exercises like tai chi or yoga can help keep your emotional energy in check. If you are wheelchair or bedbound, talk with your physician or a physical therapist about what exercises they recommend for you. There is always something you can do to move your body, even if it's wiggling your fingers or toes, or moving your facial muscles. Learn more about physical activity and lung cancer.
Coping Day to Day
This is a time for patients to explore their emotional needs, more than any other time. What feels like a healthy way to cope for one person may feel stressful or unnatural for another. Take the time to figure out what works best for you either on your own or with professional help. For example:
Write a letter.
You can write the letter to your future self, past self, present self, or someone you have been wanting to talk to about how you're feeling. You never have to share this letter. You can even rip it up and throw it into the air when you're done writing it. Sometimes writing down our thoughts can feel like a release.
Lean on community.
Many people going through illness find it helpful to talk about it. People of faith may want to engage in their spiritual community or meet with their leaders; others may want to connect with those who have had a similar experience. If that's you, find a support group through a social worker at your cancer center.
Find activities that bring you joy.
Go back to hobbies, even if you have to adjust the way you do them. Think about what has helped you cope with difficult moments in the past. If you feel like watching a children's movie that brought you joy when you were a child or one that your children or grandchildren enjoy now, go ahead and watch it. Surround yourself with people and things that bring you joy, and seek out experiences that make you feel awe as much as possible. You may also want to try coloring, meditation, reading, deep breathing, knitting, learning an instrument, or taking an art or cooking class. Working with your hands can distract the emotional part of your brain.
There's no right or wrong way to cope with lung cancer. Be patient with yourself, listen to your body and mind and remember, you are the expert on your own life.
Ask the Expert: Making Meaning of Your DiagnosisLearn more
Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed November 19, 2017.