By: Patricia Callahan, LMSW, Cancer Resource Specialist at Cancer Support Community North Texas
Cancer patients are uniquely vulnerable to the Coronavirus because treatments like chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation and stem cell transplants can result in compromised immune systems. Even though more places are opening up and most are tired of staying home, it’s still important for anyone with a compromised immune system to continue to stay home as much as possible. Other household members should limit their outings as well to reduce the risk of bringing the virus home to vulnerable loved ones. If you have to go out for medical appointments or essential errands like grocery shopping, wear a mask, wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, and practice social distancing – staying 6 feet apart from others. (MD Anderson Staff, 2020)
As businesses open up and the world around you is returning to going out and socializing more, it can feel even more stressful and isolating to continue staying home, especially if you are cooped up with children or other family members and feel like you have no time for yourself. Or conversely, if you live alone and really wish you could have face to face contact with loved ones. Cancer patients, like everyone else, want to know when this will be over, when they can go out and see their people. Although we don’t have a set time frame for when the need to practice social distancing will end, it can be helpful to remind yourself that it is likely time limited. It is also helpful to remember that “social distancing and isolation are not meant to be a punishment but a way to protect the work and treatment you already have undergone to treat or manage your illness. It is the best way we know how to maintain your health.” (Balliet, 2020)
It can be easy to zone out or even be in a state of holding your breath, just waiting for things to get back to normal, but this actually increases anxiety and irritability and can contribute to a sense of hopelessness and frustration. Now, more than ever, it is important to implement practices for increasing feelings of well-being and connectedness and lowering stress. So what can cancer patients and their loved ones do to survive and thrive during extended isolation?
Focus on strengths. For cancer patients and survivors, it can be helpful to focus on what they’ve already come through – the strength and courage they found to get them through whatever challenges they have already faced, and the tools and resources that helped them do that. Writing these things down in a journal or on a piece of paper they can post somewhere they will see it can be a good tool to have when things start to feel hopeless or overwhelming.
Smile and connect. If you are a patient and are continuing to come to medical visits, the landscape has changed. Having to wear a mask, have your temperature taken, and answer questions to enter a building, plus not being able to have your loved ones with you for support can be provoke feelings of anxiety. Remember you are not alone. Smile when you pass someone. Make small talk in the elevator. You will be amazed what these small acts can do to lift your spirits and the spirits of those around you. (Balliet, 2020)
Use Online Support. The use of the free online platforms for support groups, counseling, classes, and presentations offered by Cancer Support Community allow patients to take an active role in their care and limit the information overload that comes from channel surfing or too much time on social media. Become a member of Cancer Support Community North Texas to access free counseling and support groups. Access our virtual classes and presentations here.
Look for opportunities to do things in a new way. If you are tired of video chats with friends and family, get creative with it: play online versions of classic games like Clue, Monopoly, and Uno; make a favorite recipe together while on FaceTime, Messenger, or Zoom; watch movies with friends on Netflix Party, or start a virtual book group. Reconnect by text or phone calls with friends and family you haven’t talked to in a while. Check in on others more than you normally would. Take your morning coffee, breakfast, or dinner outside and enjoy the fresh air. Read new books. Watch uplifting and humorous television shows that aren’t your regular go to shows or genres.
Focus on what’s good. It can be easy to get caught up in the latest Coronavirus statistics or political debates about social distancing, but there is also a lot of good and kindness going on in the world right now: neighbors checking on one another, restaurants and schools offering free food to children, and strangers offering to grocery shop for vulnerable people. It can feel like the universe is against you when faced with the dual stress of cancer and the worry of catching COVID-19. “So, each time you look at the news, search for a ‘tell me something good’ story to help balance the narrative.” (Balliet, 2020)
Provide Acts of Kindness. Email someone you know who may be alone and scared just to let them know you are thinking of them. Write thank you notes to the people who have helped you. Write positive messages on social media if you use it. (Balliet, 2020)
Increase positive feelings. One way to do this is what Vice President of Clinical Services for Cancer Support Community Susan Ash-Lee calls “a spoon full of oxytocin.” Oxytocin is the “love hormone”, the feel-good hormone that is generated when we do things like pet animals, share a meal with someone, take a warm bath, give someone a hug, or say I love you. This feeling of well-being and connectedness can also be generated by practicing Loving Kindness Meditation or finding things in our lives that Ash-Lee calls “Hula Hoops and Tambourines” – those things that are unique to each one of us that make us giggle with delight. (Ash-Lee, 2020)
Create ways to center and calm yourself. Conscious breathing and mindfulness meditation are two ways to practice staying in the present moment, noticing what is, right now. You don’t have to be perfect at it. It’s a practice. It helps us bring our minds back to the present and away from worrying about the future and things we can’t control. You can find free mindfulness and other meditation videos on the Cancer Support Community Facebook page and on Youtube. There are also apps that offer guidance on breathing: Prana Breath: Calm & Meditate, Breathe2Relax, Universal Breathing: Pranayama.
Use reliable sources of information. Keep yourself informed with official information from sources like the Center for Disease Control, The World Health Organization and the American Cancer Society. Take their recommendations seriously. Avoid unsubstantiated comments on social media.
MD Anderson Staff (2020, May 8) COVID-19: Businesses are reopening. Is it safe for cancer patients to go out? MD Anderson. https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/cancerwise/covid-19coronavirus–businesses-are-reopening–is-it-safe-for-cancer-patients-survivors-caregivers-to-go-out.h00-159381945.html
Balliet, W. (2020, March 25) Top 12 tips to relieve COVID-19 stress. Medical University of South Carolina. https://web.musc.edu/about/news-center/2020/03/25/covid-19-stress-relief
Ash-Lee, S. (2020, April 28) Spotlight on Coronavirus: Coping with the Emotions. Interview by K. Thiboldeaux. Frankly Speaking About Cancer [Online Radio Show]. Retrieved from https://www.cancersupportcommunity.org/radio-show/spotlight-coronavirus-coping-emotions
For more information on lowering stress for cancer patients during the COVID-19 crisis, please see the following resources:
Expert Q&A: Cancer, COVID-19 and Mental Health
Expert Advice: Cancer Care During COVID-19