Navigating life with cancer is hard. Navigating life with cancer in the middle of a global health crisis is hard beyond words.
You worry about you or your loved ones becoming sick. You worry about your follow-ups or treatments being cancelled or postponed. Maybe you worry about going into the hospital for infusions or surgery without a support person. The idea of not having access to the resources you usually rely on to manage your symptoms or chronic pain seems overwhelming. You may also be experiencing pain flare ups as a result of the stress you are experiencing.
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing you to adjust the way you take care of your physical and mental health, the way you work, the way you relate to others, including your medical team. All of this has likely made life pretty overwhelming.
In times of heightened stress and uncertainty, tending to your emotional needs is essential. Now is a time to tap into coping skills you may have relied upon when faced with other unwanted challenges, such as your cancer diagnosis. And if you find it difficult to know where to get started, below are some ideas on how to navigate stress.
- Practice self-compassion
If you feel like you are riding an emotional rollercoaster, you are not alone! You may feel worried, angry, guilty, hopeful, sad, blessed, scared, and every emotional state in between. As a survivor, you may suddenly feel the anxiety of your diagnosis resurface or find yourself monitoring your physical symptoms more closely. Those who are living with advanced cancer may find themselves filled with angst and anxiety, as the health crisis makes their existential concerns about death and dying more salient.
It’s okay to feel all the feels. Let me repeat this, it’s okay to feel all the feels! No one expects you to “think positive”, “find a silver lining”, or “see the bright side.” You are a human being going through a very unique and challenging situation; experiencing conflicting and ever-changing emotions is normal.
Where to get started: As you go through these difficult emotions, practice self-compassion by asking yourself how you would respond to a loved one going through the same struggles. What would you tell them? What tone of voice would you use? Write everything down. Finally, try treating yourself the way you would treat a dear friend, and notice what happens!
- Focus on your most immediate needs
Now may not be the best time to start a new hobby or tackle a big project, as stress is likely to make you feel emotionally and physically drained. Now is a time to shift your focus on your immediate needs. Be basic! Make sure that you stay hydrated and maintain adequate nutrition, stay on top of your medications and medical appointments, protect your sleep, take steps to manage your stress, and connect with loved ones.
Where to get started: Sleep is one of the first things to be impacted by stress. Maintaining a relaxing bedtime routine is essential to sleeping well. The idea is to help your brain wind down and prepare yourself for sleep. The routine can look like taking a shower, brushing your teeth, reading for 15 minutes, light stretching, getting in bed, turning off the light, doing a 5-minute breathing exercise. The key is to be consistent with your routine. Over time, this routine will become a signal for your brain to relax and it will help you fall asleep more easily. Repeating a shorter version of this routine can also help you fall asleep faster if you wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to go back to sleep.
- Limit media exposure
Ongoing exposure to news and media coverage about COVID-19 can lead to increased stress and anxiety. Setting boundaries around checking social media and news outlets can help manage your anxiety.
Where to get started: Define set times (1-2 times daily, and not before bedtime!) when you will check the news about COVID-19, and always get your information from trusted outlets (e.g., CDC, WHO, your medical team).
- Practice relaxation
There are many ways to practice relaxation, including deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, mindfulness, guided imagery. Not only do these techniques can calm your mind, they also target physical tension and help relax your body. However, relaxation can also be achieved in many other ways, by journaling, painting, walking, praying, etc. The idea is to think of an activity that is conducive to relaxation and that you enjoy! Think about what worked for you in the past and go back to what helped before if it is still available to you.
Where to get started: Deep breathing is a technique you can practice anywhere and that doesn’t require any equipment! You can practice laying down or sitting up. Place a hand on your belly and one on your chest, notice your belly filling with air as you breathe in through your nose, and notice how it draws in as you gently breathe out through your mouth. Repeat a few times. Using an app or YouTube video can be a helpful tool to guide you through this practice.
- Lean on your support network
It takes a village to cope with a cancer diagnosis. And the current pandemic makes social support even more critical. Support can look like many different things: Having someone who feels comfortable listening to you without jumping in to offer advice, getting a ride to doctor’s appointment, getting your groceries delivered to your door so that you don’t have to venture outside of the house, setting a virtual date with a friend to binge on a Netflix show, a loved one stepping in to coordinate your meals. The list is endless.
You know yourself and your support network best. It’s important to think about your needs broadly and identify who in your network can best help you. Some people may be good listeners and know how to reassure you, others may feel more comfortable dropping off your groceries.
Where to get started: Physical distancing can exacerbate loneliness. To prevent this, schedule a call or FaceTime coffee date with a loved one at least once a week. You may want to figure out a time when you tend to feel more lonely or stressed, and schedule your virtual date accordingly. If you live with family, schedule a set time to engage in a fun activity together.
Finally, now is a time to ask for help if you need it. If you feel overwhelmed and need additional support, reach out to a friend or family member, schedule a therapy session, connect with online cancer communities to get connected with resources. You do not have to go through this alone.