As a clinical oncologist, I often meet patients and their loved ones at a critical time. Routines have become disrupted by a cancer diagnosis, relationships may have shifted, and the future may look uncertain. I see how families come together and focus intensely on providing support and guidance. They gather information, help find the right specialist, accompany their loved one to consultations, and often spend long hours in hospital or clinic waiting rooms, simply to “be there.” A diagnosis of cancer and undergoing cancer treatment can sap the energy from an entire family or group of friends. So it is with great respect for their effort and time that I write to remind you that it is also important to think about pacing yourself for what may turn out to be a marathon.
My advice to a friend who was just diagnosed with cancer was this: take the time to accept the news, to process your thoughts and feelings, and then slowly put yourself back together and prepare for the work of undergoing treatment. It’s completely normal to feel sad, vulnerable, scared, or surprised. Ask for help when you need it. Take time to enjoy at least something every day. It takes a huge amount of emotional energy to cope with a cancer diagnosis. We don’t think enough about replenishing the energy stores that were used up in the process.
No matter how well prepared you are and how devoted, it’s easy to get caught up in cycles of worry and constant activity. Remember that we are actually more efficient when we are well rested and feel refreshed. I fully understand it may be difficult to take time off from cancer or caregiving, but this is not totally out of your reach. A dear patient once told me that she needed to find a space that was “cancer-free” in her life, and others have echoed this sentiment as well. It takes more than a temporary distraction to help us recalibrate and feel calm and strong, yet it takes enormous strength and courage to fully engage in fighting disease or to provide support for a loved one who is ill.
So if you find you are always busy preparing lists, completing tasks, or searching for information, perhaps you need to slow down. Consider taking a short trip or visiting an old friend—waking up in a different environment may help you feel rested. You may find new solutions to old problems or more patience to deal with what you cannot change. Living with a serious illness can upset family traditions and routines, including a summer vacation that may need to be postponed or has become unaffordable. However, there may be simple day trips that are still within reach and provide a chance to leave the worries at home. A hike in the woods or a drive to a favorite resort may turn out to be a valuable distraction.
As I watch the sun set over the beautiful Pacific shoreline, I tell myself to breathe a little more deeply. I tell myself that I will continue the practice when I’m back at the office. We’ll have to wait and see.