Coping with cancer

Everyone will deal with the experience of having cancer, and having treatment for their cancer, in different ways. How people deal with it all will depend on many different factors including the stage at which the cancer was discovered, what kind of treatment they are having, whether they are being treated at home or in hospital. But it will also depend on their own personality, how at ease with themselves they feel, how they feel about their future prospects and many other things besides.

Here young people talk about the coping strategies that worked for them as individuals.

Many young people we interviewed talked about the importance of remaining positive through illness and treatment. For some it is about consciously facing up to the condition, confronting it, fighting it and maintaining hope. For others it meant not being frightened of the illness or its treatment, or not thinking about the possibility of dying. One young person said that being positive meant enjoying ’their teens years and the here and now’ (Interview 06) and for another it was ’to live the present and to plan no more than a week in advance’ (Interview 24). Some said that what was important to them was doing things to break the monotony of 'the patient routine’, such as going out with friends or family, taking a stroll in the park or walking on the beach - all of which could help make them feel more positive.

It was also clear from what young people said that no one experiencing cancer can hope to feel positive all of the time, and that there are times when they inevitably felt tired, anxious, angry and depressed.

Some believed that having a positive outlook had helped them when coping with the unwanted side effects of their treatment and in their recovery (see also ’Does everyone feel the same as I do?’, ’Relapses’ and ’Follow-up appointments’). Another thing that had helped was if the health professionals had made sure that they fully understood their condition and its treatment because this helped the young person feel that they were taking control of their illness (Interviews 08, 16, 26, 28). For instance a man who had previously given up his treatment said that once he had reached a full understanding that there was no alternative to what he was having, this helped him to cope with going through the treatment protocol. Still others found that keeping themselves well occupied helped to prevent them feeling so ill when they were undergoing their treatment (Interview 10).

What is also of great importance is being able to maintain some sort of 'normal lifestyle’. For instance, those who had their treatment as out-patients were, depending on their health, able to maintain aspects of their normal routine by going to school and thus were able to keep in touch with friends. For them, going to school or university was important because it provided a break from being a patient, provided regular contact with their mates, thus reducing feelings of isolation and exclusion or, as some said, of 'missing out’.

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If treatment had to be provided all or most of the time as an in-patient then this was provided either in teenage wards or in adult ones. Those who were treated in teenage wards said that being with people their own age greatly helped when it came to them coping with their cancer and its treatment. It is obvious that young people, when in hospital, do not necessarily talk about cancer all the time and certainly do not sit around feeling sorry for themselves, but that, like any other group of young people they talked to each other about all aspects of their lives and about their plans for when they get to leave hospital. Using humour also appeared a great way of staying positive about things.

A problem was that young people who were treated in an adult hospital ward felt more isolated and needed to use other techniques like ’relaxation and visualisation’ when trying to stay positive.

Talking with friends, parents and brothers and sisters was a very important source of support that helped. There were also instances where they developed a closer relationship with their mothers and were able to talk with them more openly about their fears and anxieties.

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But they did not always want to burden their parents with their innermost feelings and found it easier to talk to somewhat who was less emotionally involved. It was obvious that during treatment many young people tried to put on a ’brave face’ or maintain an upbeat mood for the sake of their family and friends. Again, a reoccurring theme was that many young people said that they did not want others to feel sorry for them.

'Support groups’ and 'participation’ also played an important part in helping people to cope. They felt that it was very beneficial to meet others who could ’understand how you really feel’. Ways of participating included activity camps, going to a meeting, chatting with others through the Internet, taking part in organised group activities such as relaxation therapies, or become a volunteer helping other young people going through the same experience. Initially, some were reluctant to join a support group because they thought it might be depressing. Others, who participated in a support group, came to realise that there was usually someone there who was worse off than them, causing them to appreciate the more positive aspects of their situation.

There are other coping strategies that helped young people channel or express their feelings. Some developed these strategies themselves whilst other strategies were suggested by their teachers, psychologists or their nurses. These include such activities as listening to music, writing poetry, keeping a diary or photograph album, drawing, practising gentle forms of exercise like walking or even Tai Chi. These became very important during illness and treatment because they provided both enjoyment and also helped to deal with negative feelings.

Long-term complications such as memory loss, visual problems and balance problems (all particularly common in young people with brain tumours) needed additional coping strategies.

Managing physical problems such as scars was also a big issue (see 'Body image during and after cancer').

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Stephen created his own website called Stephen’s Story to talk about his cancer experiences and spread his motivation and positivity for living life to the full.


Last reviewed December 2017.

Last updated November 2014.


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