The Human Side of Cancer: Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty

Jimmie C. Holland, M.D. and Sheldon Lewis

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright 2000


The following do’s and don’t’s are intended to be commonsense guidelines to help you avoid feeling "trapped in the working of a huge piece of complicated machinery." I developed these "Holland’s homilies," as my staff calls them, from working with people with cancer. They incorporate my ideas about the tyranny of positive thinking and how to deal with some of the attitudes that are out there about coping with cancer, some of which as we described in Chapter 2, create more problems to deal with.

1. DON’T believe the old adage that "cancer equals death." There are eight million survivors of cancer in the United States today.

2. DON’T blame yourself for causing your cancer. There is no scientific proof linking specific personalities, emotional states, or painful life events to the development of cancer. Even if you may have raised your cancer risk through smoking or some other habit, there is no benefit to blaming yourself or beating yourself up.

3. DO rely on ways of coping that helped you solve problems and handle crises in the past. If you’ve been a talker find someone with whom you feel comfortable talking about your illness. If you’re an inveterate nontalker, you may find relaxation, meditation, or similar approaches helpful. The secret is this: Use whatever has worked for you before, but if what you’re doing isn’t working, seek help to find other ways to cope.

4. DO cope with cancer "one day at a time." The task of dealing with cancer seems less overwhelming when you break it up this way, and it is also allows you to focus better on getting the most out of each day, despite illness.

5. DON’T feel guilty if you cannot keep a positive attitude all the time, especially when you don’t feel good. Low periods will occur, no matter how good you are at coping. There is no evidence that those periods have a negative effect on your health or tumor growth. If they become frequent or severe, though, seek help.

6. DON’T suffer in silence. Do use support and self help groups if they make you feel better. Leave a group that makes you feel worse, but don’t try to go it all alone. Get support from your best resources: your family, friends, doctor, clergy or those you meet in support groups who understand what you are going through.

7. DON’T be embarrassed to seek counseling with a mental health professional for anxiety or depression that interferes with your sleep, eating, ability to concentrate, or ability to function normally if you feel your distress is getting out of hand.

8. DO use any methods that aid you in getting control over your fears or upset feelings, such as relaxation, meditation, and spiritual approaches.

9. DO find a doctor who lets you ask all your questions and for whom you feel mutual respect and trust. Insist on being a partner with him or her in your treatment. Ask what side effects you may expect and be prepared for them. Anticipating problems often makes it easier to handle them if they occur.

10. DON’T keep your worries or symptoms (physical or psychological) secret from the person closest to you. Ask this person to accompany you to visits to the doctor when treatments are to be discussed. Research shows that people often don’t hear or absorb information when anxious. A second person will help you interpret what was said.

11. DO reexplore spiritual and religious beliefs and practices such as prayer that may have helped you in the past. (If you don’t consider yourself a religious or spiritual person, garner support from any belief system of philosophy that you value, such as humanism.) These beliefs may comfort you and may even help you find meaning in the experience of your illness.

12. DON’T abandon your regular treatment in favor of an alternative or complementary treatment (see Chapter 10). Use alternative treatments that do no harm and that can safely be used along with your regular treatment. Be sure to tell your doctor which complementary therapies you are using or want to use, since some should not be used during chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Discuss the benefits and risks of any alternative or complementary treatments with someone you trust who can assess them more objectively than you when you are under stress. Psychological, social, and spiritual approaches are helpful and safe, and doctors encourage their use today.

13. DO keep a personal notebook with all your dates for treatments, laboratory values, X-ray reports, symptoms, and general status. Information is critical in cancer treatment, and no one can keep it better than you (see Chapter 5).

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