How to Prioritize Yourself Amidst a Cancer Diagnosis
Cancer sucks. And it’s OK to not be OK. Here’s help on making it through, with advice from someone who’s been there.
The stress of a cancer diagnosis and the rigours of treatment can take a toll, both physically and mentally, leaving many depressed, anxious and feeling alone. While the physical effects of cancer are often well known, the mental health impact is only more recently getting the attention it deserves.
The truth is, taking care of your mental health and well-being is a critical part of your cancer journey. Why? For starters, mental wellness has a huge impact on your overall health and, if left unchecked, can impact your healing. The good news is that prioritizing your mental health can actually be lifesaving. Studies show that taking advantage of mental health supports such as group therapy and stress reduction strategies, can improve survival rates and even lower the risk of recurrence.
So, how can you make mental health a priority when you’re already dealing with a life- altering diagnosis? Read on for advice from someone who’s been there.
“You can try to get through it alone, but no one should have to,” says Louise Bell, cancer survivor and Master of Psychology Student at the University of New Brunswick.
Image: Louise Bell
Seeking support from a healthcare professional or supportive care programs can be so beneficial for your mental health, and as a result, your overall health and well-being. Whether it’s tapping into a virtual community on Instagram or Facebook, or finding an in-person group program, that support is crucial. While each person’s experience is unique, it helps to know you’re not alone.
“I immediately joined a group specifically for young adults with cancer, started to reach out to people and asked for tips, and relied on my family and friends,” says Louise. “It was really important for me to feel supported when it felt like the carpet was pulled out from under me.”
Image: Louise Bell
Feel what you’re feeling
You don’t need to put on a brave face all the time. As a society, we put a lot of emphasis on “kicking cancer’s butt,” and the idea that people going through cancer are strong warriors. While they most definitely are fighting a battle, this kind of language might not be helpful for everyone.
“It can be really discouraging to have people tell you how strong you are, especially when you don’t feel strong,” says Louise, “and hearing you need to keep fighting can be really exhausting.”
Allow yourself to feel whatever it is that you’re feeling, whether that’s frustrated, weak, sad, or angry, and don’t feel like you need to put on a brave face for anyone else.
“You can’t really run away from how you feel, and life comes with plenty of ups and downs,” says Louise. “When you’re at a ‘down’ you have to process that just the same as you would with an ‘up’. We have to be kind to our minds just like we try to be to our bodies—they work together for us.
Now is exactly the time you should be putting yourself first. Self-care is important for your recovery and overall well-being. It’s even been shown to positively impact psychological outcomes in cancer treatment.
Self-care looks different for everyone and might be as simple as reading a good book or going for a walk in nature. For Louise, it included participating in a Look Good Feel Better workshop. Whatever you enjoy, making time to do it regularly can help you find some sort of normalcy.
Make a new plan
When she was diagnosed with cancer, Louise had to postpone starting her Master’s program at the University of New Brunswick—something she had been working toward for so long. “It was really difficult,” she says of the impact this had on her mental health.
In order to cope, Louise focused on what she could control. “Focusing on postponing, something that I have no control over, wasn’t going to help me with my diagnosis,” says Louise. “I needed to shift my focus to my health in order to make it to school. So, as much as it was hard, I had to reprioritize what was in front of me: cancer.”
For Louise, that meant making a plan, taking care of her mental health, asking for help, and creating a support system. “Cancer brings a lot of emotions and fears out of people, so having control, a schedule, and love around you will be like an anchor through it,” she says.
Give yourself a break
“Just like your body requires a day of rest from exercise so you don’t put unnecessary stress on your body, your mind needs the same break from stress. If you’re constantly worried, overthinking, or avoiding how you feel—it only exasperates whatever you’re going through,” says Louise.
It’s important to give yourself a break and allow yourself to take the time you need, whatever that looks like for you.
You can learn more about Louise’s cancer journey in the new Look Good Feel Better magazine at lgfb.ca. A useful resource for those facing cancer, the magazine shares powerful personal stories and uplifting content to help women whose lives have been affected by cancer feel less alone.