Your coping toolbox

Tuesday 30 April, 2013

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On this page: Gathering information | Looking after yourself | Complementary therapiesReviewers  


Most of us have different ways of coping with difficult situations that we've learned over a lifetime. These could include:

  • seeking more information
  • trying to fix the problem
  • having a laugh to feel better
  • distracting yourself from unhelpful thoughts and feelings
  • talking things through to try and make sense of what is happening
  • denying the circumstances.

How you cope depends on the type of situation you're facing, your personality, upbringing, role models and what has worked in the past. You might find your usual ways of coping aren't enough to handle the different challenges caused by cancer. There's no single best or right way of coping, but having a few different ways may help you feel a greater sense of control and confidence.

Think of ways of coping as being tools in your toolbox. Different jobs generally need different tools. If one tool doesn't fit the job, you need to try another one. It's helpful to consider several strategies or ‘tools' for coping with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. 

Some strategies are generally unhelpful for any situation if used too much, such as, avoiding the problem entirely, self-blame, alcohol or drug use, overeating, or gambling.

Gathering information

Once diagnosed, there's a lot of information to take in – and well-meaning family and friends may give you even more. Too much information may leave you confused about what to do. Instead, you may need more accurate information or a way of dealing with what you already have. 

Get organised Start a filing system for all your test results, information and records.
Keep a diary This may help you to keep track of events and highlight where information may be missing. This will also be a useful, accurate record in the future (especially if you're seeing different professionals in different locations).
Take time to work out what specific information you need It may help to write down your questions and to put them in order of how important they are right now. For example, you may know what treatments are available to you but you may not know the specific pros and cons of each treatment for your situation.
Involve other people Consider asking people you trust to help gather and make sense of new information.
Consider different sources of information Look at websites, books and different organisations. Take care with cancer information from the internet as some of it is unregulated and poor quality. See our lists of useful websites.
Talk to your doctor – specialist or general practitioner (GP) If you're unsure or confused about certain information, it can help to talk to your doctor. Doctors are usually happy to explain things and point you in the right direction. Consider writing your questions down beforehand so you remember what you want to ask when you see your health care professionals. You can also direct questions you have to Cancer Council nurses on 13 11 20. 
Organise and update your affairs Many people with cancer review their insurance policies and update their will. This doesn't mean you have given up. Everyone needs to do these things and once done you'll have less to worry about.

It can help to take a close family member or friend to consultations with your doctor to take notes, ask questions and to help you remember the information you're given. 

Looking after yourself

Cancer can cause physical and emotional strain. Some days you may feel better than others. Nurturing yourself can enhance your wellbeing and reduce stress during this time. 

Eat well Eating well gives your body better fuel to help it cope with the stress of illness and treatment.
Be active Physical activity has been shown to lift mood, lower blood pressure, improve sleep and reduce stress. It's also an important way to manage fatigue – helping you to feel more energetic and less tired. Even a short walk daily can help.
Make time for yourself Even though life may be very busy, it's important to make time each day just for relaxation and enjoyment. Think about things you do (or have done in the past) that help you to relax and feel good.
Deal with feelings Blocking out or avoiding your emotions may create extra pressure, leading to increased frustration and anxiety. Talking about the problem with your partner, friends, or members of your cancer care team may be more effective and less tiring, helping to make sense of your feelings as well as lighten your load. You can also call Cancer Council nurses on 13 11 20 to talk about your issues confidentially.
Sort out issues A cancer diagnosis may happen in the context of other life stresses such as financial problems, work-related issues, relationship concerns and family stresses. Dealing with other sources of stress in your life may help you cope better with the additional burden of cancer treatment.
Stay connected Staying connected with the world through work, hobbies, or time spent with family and friends, may help you see a life outside of cancer and provide time out from your worries.
Tap into spiritual beliefs Some people find meaning and comfort from their faith and spiritual practices, such as meditation or prayer. Others may experience spirituality more generally. For some people the experience of cancer challenges their beliefs. It may help to talk to a spiritual leader or pastoral care worker about your feelings.

Recognising signs of stress and anxiety

Your body releases adrenaline, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, your breathing is shallow and fast, your hands get sweaty, and your mouth gets dry. These are natural responses and useful when dealing with emergencies, but not very helpful in dealing with cancer.

For ideas on how to learn to reduce these reactions, see our complementary therapies pages.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies are treatments that may help you cope better with side effects such as pain. They may also increase your sense of control over what's happening to you, decrease your stress and anxiety, and improve your mood. 

Relaxation and meditation Both of these therapies can help reduce anxiety, stress, pain and depression. Studies on meditation have shown it enhances wellbeing and can reduce anxiety. Relaxation usually includes slow breathing and muscleloosening exercises to physically and mentally relax the body.
Counselling Through discussions with a counsellor or psychologist, you can identify problems and explore ways of resolving negative thoughts and feelings that impact on your health and day-to-day life. Counselling allows you to express your emotions in a safe, objective environment and learn new coping skills.
Hypnotherapy Involves deep relaxation and is used to help people become more aware of their inner thoughts. This may help you to overcome mental blocks.
Art therapy Is a way of using visual art to express feelings. An art therapist helps you explore the images you have created to encourage understanding of your emotions and concerns.

Let your doctor know about any complementary therapies you're using or thinking about trying. Some therapies may not be appropriate, depending on your medical treatment. Some may even cause harm.

Contact Cancer Council on 13 11 20 for more information about complementary therapies and alternative therapies or for a free copy of the meditation and relaxation audio CDs.

The mind-body connection

Mind-body techniques are based on the belief that what we think and feel can affect your physical and mental wellbeing. When your emotions or mental state are under pressure, your physical body can be affected. Similarly, physical symptoms can have a negative impact on your mood and mental wellbeing.

Many complementary therapies focus on the mind-body connection in different ways. Examples include counselling, support groups, hypnotherapy, relaxation, meditation, visualisation, art therapy and music therapy.

Studies show that mind-body techniques may reduce the symptoms and side effects of cancer, which can all affect mood and overall wellbeing. They've also been shown to help people feel more in control of their situation, more relaxed and less fearful of the future. 


Reviewers: Dr Lisbeth Lane, Senior Clinical Psychologist, University of Wollongong, Wollongong Hospital, NSW; Kim Hobbs, Social Worker, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Dr Megan Best, Palliative Care Physician, Greenwich Hospital, NSW; Deborah Ball, Coordinator of Direct Support Services, Cancer Council SA; Sandy Hutchison, Executive Manager, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council QLD; Jill Adams, RN, Helpline, Cancer Council WA; and Ksenia Savin, Cancer Connect Volunteer and Consumer, QLD.
Updated: 30 Apr, 2013