Life After a Cancer Diagnosis

20 Aug 2021

If you have received a cancer diagnosis, it may feel overwhelming at first. You may be unsure or uncertain about where to begin on this new chapter of your life. It may also be confusing as you’re inundated with well-meaning health advice from friends and family.

“It’s a normal response to feel anxious and worried at first,” says Amy O’Donnell, Chris O’Brien specialist nurse. If you have received a cancer diagnosis, it can take some time to process the information, diagnosis and proposed treatment plan you’ve been given. “It’s important to accept that you may need a mind-shift, and that you will need to take some time to process your diagnosis,” she says.

She recommends seeking some professional help and advice if you find after the first week or so things have not settled, when the future can seem so uncertain. A therapist or counsellor can help you deal with your diagnosis and help you put some practical plans into place – whether they’re short- or long-term. “They will also be able to help you deal with the various emotions which may arise from your diagnosis, such as anger, uncertainty, sadness, or fear,” O’Donnell says. “It may be that you’re worried about your children and how they’re going to be supported. Whatever your worries, talking about them with a professional, can be an immense help.”

In addition to expert help and support, there are some steps you can take yourself to help you manage. “Regular rituals or activities may help you feel more in control or more positive,” says O’Donnell. “it’s important to remember not to put undue pressure on yourself and accept that there may be some days where you won’t want to, or can’t achieve much.”

Move a little, or a lot
The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia says exercise should be prescribed to all cancer patients as a standard part of their cancer care, to help manage the effects of cancer and its treatment.

“We certainly encourage our patients to exercise as much as they feel that they can do,” she says. “There is a lot of research which shows the benefits of exercise for people undergoing treatment – it’s not just physical, but your mental health will feel the positive effects too.”

Why not try: Along with eating healthy, well-balanced meals, plan to incorporate some exercise into your everyday life. Aim to get around 30 minutes of movement each day. This could include walking, swimming, cycling or strength-building exercise using weights, bands or your own body weight. Meditation and yoga may also help calm a worried mind too. “Whichever exercise you try to do, make sure you enjoy it,” says O’Donnell. “If you feel fatigued don’t use this as a reason to avoid your daily fitness. Staying active can help ease the fatigue caused by cancer and treatments. If thirty minutes of exercise at once is too much, break this up into smaller, more manageable increments throughout the day.” Regular exercise can also help you sleep better, boost your immune system (which can become severely compromised during treatment), improve your overall mood and self-esteem and offset long-term health problems that may occur due to your cancer treatment.

Eat well
Eating a balanced, healthy diet can help your immune system, improve your mental health and give you the energy you need to do some fitness each day. During treatment you may not feel like eating much. “Small snacks are better during this time, and may be easier to face rather than three large meals a day,” she says. Try to eat a variety of foods, including fruit and vegetables to help support your body during treatment and afterwards. However, sometimes it’s simply about getting calories in as some foods may become unpalatable – it’s a little like being pregnant in that regard where you are really turned off particular foods. “Ask your doctor for a referral to a dietitian for some advice and guidance about healthy eating,” says O’Donnell.

Look on the bright side of life
“It always helps to be positive,” says O’Donnell. “It doesn’t stop bad things from happening, but a positive attitude may be able to help you deal with the curveballs life throws at you.” At the same time remembering whatever feelings you have are ok and to work with them and accept whatever it is you feel.  If you are finding you are feeling low or negative moods often – this is a sign to seek help to be able to get on with everyday life. O’Donnell says that she is constantly impressed by cancer patients who have received an incurable diagnosis, yet they continue to look after themselves and their overall health with a positive mindset. “Again, a counsellor or psychologist can help you with some advice, but allowing people to help you and your family, connecting with others to create a supportive community and making your health – mental and physical – a priority can go a long way,” she advises.

However you choose to deal with your cancer diagnosis is personal. “Remember that there is always support and resources available to help you through your journey,” says O’Donnell.