Living with Uncertainty
From the moment your first symptoms appear, until long after you reach remission, uncertainty is an almost constant feature of the cancer experience. Not knowing what the future holds can sometimes feel more overwhelming than getting bad news—it’s difficult to heal and move on if you’re constantly wondering, what if:
- The treatment doesn’t work
- It has painful side effects
- I won’t be able to have children afterwards
- The cancer grows back
Uncertainty also comes from having to put your personal life on hold. The time and energy that cancer demands can mean needing to step away from your career, friendships and aspirations, without knowing for how long.
A cancer diagnosis is a life-defining event. People often say that he or she remembers the exact time, date and what was happening when they received their diagnosis. They remember because, in that moment, they were faced with the possibility of death. But having a diagnosis of cancer today doesn’t mean what it did in the past.
How cancer care has changed
People often think of various worst-case scenarios when they’re diagnosed because of previous experiences with sick relatives, or the way cancer is portrayed in the media. But today, many treatments are personalized, using your genes or immune system to target cancer cells more effectively than older treatment methods. Thanks to improvements in palliative care, or the field dedicated to comfort and pain relief, it’s possible to stay comfortable throughout every cancer stage as well.
It’s also possible to live with advanced or incurable cancer for years, with many older adults now passing away with cancer, rather than from it. In fact, the overall rate of cancer deaths has decreased by 25 percent since 1991.
But even though there are many reasons to hope for good news at your next appointment, living like you could hear the worst news is one of the most powerful ways to cope with uncertainty. Mending broken relationships, practising spirituality, and starting each day with a sense of purpose can make the worst-case scenarios less scary. These practices are also science-backed ways to reduce stress and boost your immune system.
Plan ahead for days of big uncertainty
Your anxiety might be most severe before medical tests, especially if those tests will determine your cancer stage or treatment outcome. As testing days move closer on the calendar, allow yourself to ride out any emotions that surface, even if you don’t fully understand them. Appointments tend to bring up difficult memories and trigger surprising emotions, regardless of how well you’re coping overall.
Before the day arrives, a little preparation can help keep your anxiety to a minimum:
- Plan your trip ahead of time; leave early. Transportation challenges will just add unnecessary stress to your day.
- Don’t show up to the waiting room empty-handed. Bring snacks and blankets for comfort, headphones for soothing music, distractions like an adult colouring book and, if you’d like, a prayer book for spiritual support.
- Bring a waiting room buddy. Tell him or her what they can do for you. You might want to hear jokes, gossip, watch funny videos or simply cry, but don’t assume they can guess which kind of support you need.
- Write down your questions. When emotions are high, you may not remember your most important concerns. Keep a running list of questions and bring it with you to appointments. Since you might not remember everything your doctor says either, ask your waiting room buddy to take notes for you.
- Being honest with your oncologist about the type of information you’d like to hear is also a key way to prevent stress
Turn worry into action
An especially hard part of living with uncertainty is losing a sense of control over your future One way to regain control is to play an active role in your care: Read about your meds, speak up if you’re hesitant about treatments, take notes at appointments. Another way is to take control is to do everything you can to stay fit and well:
Eat an overall healthy diet
Practice deep breathing with aromatherapy:
Getting outdoors with your family is another meaningful way to take action.
Talking to others can help
Your family and friends might not know that you’re grappling with uncertainty. But they won’t be able to support you unless you tell them how you’re feeling.
People who put on a brave face often struggle because they don’t ask for the help they need. It’s important to recognise that this is a different time in your life; you’re allowed to ask for help
Joining an online or in-person support group can let you meet others with similar experiences and find comfort in sharing your stories.
The most important thing you can do is to ask for help when you need it.
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