The Covid-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges, anxieties and stresses for cancer patients and their loved ones. For those of us not living with cancer or other high risk factors, we are lucky, as statistics show the coronavirus will likely only cause mild symptoms or in some cases no symptoms at all. But for the approximately 16.9 million cancer survivors living in the United States (600,00 of them receiving chemotherapy) the risks and stressors that come with living with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic are real and can be frightening.
Coronavirus, aside, stress and anxiety are frequent companions to cancer. With a cancer diagnosis, life changes seemingly overnight. Roles at work and home are quickly impacted by treatment and the emotional and physical health tolls of a cancer diagnosis are clear and well understood. Cancer patients often report feeling anxious, fatigued, sad, lonely, depressed and distressed. Cancer is already a time of so much uncertainty. Stress and uncertainty come in many different forms, but many patients and survivors report that they feel stress and uncertainty regarding:
- Ongoing health changes and quality of life as it relates to the cancer diagnosis and treatment
- Quality and effectiveness of medical care
- Managing their own emotions and feeling of concern about the emotions of loved ones
- Job, career and financial concerns
Now, let us add Covid-19 into the mix and the uncertainty with regard to treatment and the emotional impacts of a cancer diagnosis become heightened. Adding to this stress, it is likely that this virus will be circulating the globe for an undefined time frame and difficult decisions by patient and doctor must be made to weigh the benefits of treatment vs. the costs of contracting the coronavirus. Eager to begin treatment or have surgery, many cancer patients have been disappointed by delayed surgeries or treatment appointments. Delayed treatment can be scary as the goal of patients and doctors is to remove or shrink the cancer as quickly and effectively as possible. Delaying treatment can cause feelings of helplessness or hopelessness to escalate. Additionally, due to the coronavirus cancer patients and survivors must now take extra precautions to stay safe and healthy.
For many cancer patients receiving treatment, self-isolation is not something completely new. We have long known that many cancer treatments cause immune systems to be compromised and cancer patients may have already been taking precautions to keep their immune system healthy by distancing from others. However, “this social-distancing” brought on by coronavirus has caused additional precautions to be implemented that were not there before. Nurses, doctors and caregivers are now potential sources of contagion and visits from family and friends whose visits keep cancer patients spirits high may now not be possible at all for the foreseeable future.
There is no doubt that this time is difficult for all. It is important to remember that chronic stress can negatively impact the immune system, thus, taking the time to nurture yourself with stress reducing activities should be an important part of your daily routine and care. There are many things that cancer patients and their loved ones can do at this time to reduce anxiety and even find joy and hope during these unprecedent times. Here are three tips to get you started.
- Accept What You Cannot Change. Don’t spend time wasting precious energy and efforts fighting what you cannot change. No matter how hard we try, we cannot magically wish coronavirus or cancer away. Remember, however there are so many things that we can change and control around us. Sometimes you just have to ride the wave and see where it will take you. A great exercise for gaining focus, clarity, and for staying in the present is to try a mindful body scan. This is a beginner meditation that will help you focus on your breathwork, emotions and body awareness. This meditation can be short and simple too. Take five minutes or if you have more time to lend make it as long as feels right for you. Start in a comfortable position. A chair works, as does your bed or a yoga mat on the floor. Start by breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth ten times slowly. Count each breath as you exhale. Now bring awareness to any physical sensations you may be feeling. Do you have discomfort anywhere? Do you feel good? Try not to connect emotion or feeling to the sensation. Just focus on creating awareness of what you are feeling. Next start at your feet and notice any sensations. Move up and down your body paying attention to any sensations. Are you holding in stress or tension? If you are can you let it go? Was it easy to let go? What did you have to do to release the tension? Are you feeling warm or cold? Do you have physical pain any place? Try doing this every day for a week and see if you feel more relaxed after each meditation. Just a few minutes is all it takes. It is an excellent way to begin connecting your body, to your mind and emotions and of course to reduce tension and relax.
- Follow Health Care Guidelines: At this time more than ever rely on your physician and or oncologist for guidelines for your care, safety and wellbeing. Since COVID-19 is still so new it seems that guidelines are constantly changing. Although frustrating, it is natural and normal as we begin to learn more about this new virus. If you have concerns about your treatment and COVID-19 take the time to explore them with your doctor. Bring a family member with you so that they can record any new changes to your care. Do not rely on gathering information from internet searches or chat rooms. Remember, your care is personalized just for you. Discuss with your doctor practical ways that you can stay safe. Talk to your doctor not only about your physical symptoms, but spend time talking about how you are doing mentally and emotionally. Even if your doctor is not an expert in managing the mental health aspects of cancer and coronavirus, she can surely direct you to the right resources whether they be a therapist, additional medications or an emotional support group.
- Set Future Goals: Setting future goals allows you to focus on the beauty of living and allows you to dream amazing thoughts of the future. What is the first thing you will do once social distancing ends? What is something you are hoping to do once your treatment ends? Is it a trip? A visit with a loved one that you miss? Do you have a career goal you hope to accomplish? Or maybe it is something as joyful and beautiful as an upcoming wedding of a loved one or as spirit lifting as the anticipated birth of a grandchild? If you have never made a vision board now might be a great time to try it. Pull together some old magazines and a large piece of paper or card board. Get out scissors and a glue stick Start flipping through the magazines. What inspires you. What is speaking to you? Dream big. Dream positive A vision board can be a powerful resource to bring life to your future dreams and goals.
So, try to remember today and everyday do something special just for you! Cancer is hard and even harder during the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having anxiety is a typical response to both of these journeys. The good news is there is always a toolbox full of tools for you to draw strength and inspiration from. We hope these three tips get you started on a journey filled with joy, hope and inspiration.
Bluethmann SM, Mariotto AB, Rowland, JH. Anticipating the “Silver Tsunami”: Prevalence Trajectories and Comorbidity Burden among Older Cancer Survivors in the United States. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2016;25:1029-1036