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Advice for patients in the New Year

The New Year is a time when many of us refocus. We look back on the passing year and resolve to change some aspect of our lives for the better. But how does having cancer—or having a loved one who has cancer—impact how we approach the New Year? We turned to two of our mind-body therapists at our hospital in Philadelphia for advice for patients in each of the three stages of cancer: diagnosis, treatment and survivorship.

Lori Kovell, LSW, shares her insight for those newly diagnosed or currently undergoing treatment, and Carol Roth, LCSW, offers advice for survivors in this Q&A.

Diagnosis

How does a cancer diagnosis typically impact someone’s plans for the coming year?

Anytime someone receives a cancer diagnosis there is cause to evaluate life plans. If you’ve recently been diagnosed, the upcoming year can be a way to re-evaluate personal goals and make an outline of ways to positively support those goals. Around this time of year, it is common to reflect on life experiences. If the goal is to have a strong immune system, what changes in sleep, stress or diet can you make to bolster your immune system so you can better tolerate treatment?

Is there a difference in being diagnosed around the New Year versus any other time of the year?

There isn’t a big difference between learning about a cancer diagnosis around the New Year versus any other time of year. That said, the New Year is an opportunity to more seriously consider change. You may want to eat differently, improve your sleep or connect more with family and friends. The New Year presents an opportunity to start fresh.

What can those who are newly diagnosed do to refocus their lives in the New Year?

In general, it’s important to ask, “In regards to my treatment or my new diagnosis, what do I want to accomplish and how can I do this? In what lifestyle areas (sleep, diet, stress management, relationships) can I create positive change to support myself and my immune system in the coming year?”  

Should those newly diagnosed make resolutions specifically related to their cancer?

It’s not necessary to have all New Year’s resolutions be specific to cancer or treatment. A part of coping well is maintaining normalcy, so you should have some goals unrelated to cancer, too. Consider learning a new hobby or starting a new family tradition.

Treatment

Do cancer patients find it difficult to think about anything but their treatment in the New Year?

A lot of patients find it difficult to think about anything but their treatment because it is such a part of their lives. Whether or not it’s the New Year, the lives of cancer patients are generally re-organized around treatment schedules and doctor appointments. Scheduling activities that are unrelated to your treatment can be very therapeutic.

Should cancer patients even focus on other goals for the coming year? If so, how do you suggest they refocus their lives during treatment?

It’s all about balance. Yes, a treatment schedule can keep patients and their loved ones busy, but this shouldn’t mean that time with family and friends is less important. For example, if you're a guy who always went out to watch football on Sunday, but you're experiencing fatigue from your treatment, consider inviting your friends over instead. That way you can maintain friendships and engage in fun activities outside of treatment.

What are common concerns of cancer patients as they look to the future? How can they address those concerns in a healthy way?

Concerns vary person to person and can be highly specific. The most important thing is to be open about your concerns, whatever they may be, and talk with people who are supportive. If it helps to talk with a trusted friend or family member, then do that. For patients at Cancer Treatment Centers of America®, our Mind-Body Medicine teams are available for supportive counseling and can be a positive resource for patients to understand their feelings and emotions during this time. Through open and honest communication, you can gain insight, have your questions answered and strengthen personal relationships.

Survivorship

How can survivors channel the positive energy of survivorship into their goals for the New Year?

This is very individualistic and may depend on the personality of the individual. Some people are more private and others are more open about their illness. For some patients, having cancer is a life-altering event that may bring on existential questions about the meaning of their life and how they want to live their life both during and after cancer. Some people find a new meaning in their life and re-order their priorities. They adopt a new perspective on what's important and what's more trivial. For many people, their new outlook alters how they relate to loved ones and others in their life. Overall, it’s a keener appreciation of other people.

Survivorship may reveal a lesser-discussed phenomenon in which these individuals experience doubt or fear of recurrence. Some of the energy that propelled survivors through diagnosis and treatment may let up. Survivors need to address the sadness associated with this change before they can fully accept their good news. It is wise for survivors to face each day with openness and awareness of their own emotional state.

What are common ways cancer survivors react and refocus their lives upon becoming survivors?

A few commonalities are relief, gratitude and perhaps a new commitment to give back to others in some way. For many people there is a sense of grieving for the changes that have happened to them during treatment or due to treatment. At times, there is a sense of a loss of innocence about life itself. Many of us move through life with a quiet assumption that things will always go well or that we will always be in good health. That’s why a cancer diagnosis is so shocking.

What advice do you have for cancer survivors who are making plans for the New Year?

I would encourage patients to live life fully but still wisely within the parameters of what their oncologist would find prudent. But if there are things that survivors want to accomplish or special events that individual wants to experience, then it is great to try to make happen whatever is reasonable and to live life as fully as possible.

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