Starting a new year with cancer

Starting a new year when you have cancer can be very difficult. Here are  tips from the Live Better With community to help you rise to the challenge of staying strong, confident and positive…

Waking up at the beginning of January, knowing that you have cancer and that your cancer treatment is about to get under way or to continue is probably not the best start to the year.

Christmas and New Year’s Eve, with all their highs – although, let’s face it, some inevitable lows too – are over, the festivities are done and dusted, and it’s down to earth with something of a bump. And January and February are funny old months, aren’t they? Nothing really happens . . . unless you’re dealing with cancer and cancer treatment, which can be pretty relentless and exhausting.

So, what can you do to lift your mood and your spirits and to feel better able to face the coming year? Just how easy – or hard – is it to be positive and stay positive. And if your confidence has gone walkabout, something that many people with cancer experience, can you get it back?

We’ve been taking a look at some of the things that can help, including some very sound advice and tips from our Community Forums. What might work best for you will depend on where you are right now, in terms of diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, on whether you are at home or in hospital, and on your energy and mobility levels.

We’ve outlined a range of simple approaches, suggestions and recommendations, all aimed at helping you to live better with cancer – because we know that, with cancer, there is never a one-size-fits-all solution.

Counselling can help

One topic that crops up frequently in our Community Forum is depression. This can stem from being diagnosed with cancer or may be a side effect of chemotherapy or other drug treatment. Community member, Rob, found that his problems started when his cancer treatment had, in fact, finished. ‘I became quite introverted and stopped socialising and communicating, even with my wife and I was eventually diagnosed with depression,’ says Rob. ‘Fortunately, we sought help and the wonderful Macmillan provided us both with counselling support and we slowly but surely started to get things together again.’

If your depression is linked to or is a side effect of your cancer treatment, make sure you discuss this with your GP or specialist cancer nurse as they can advise how best to help with this.

Mind how you go

Anxiety – about treatment or the future, for example – often goes hand in hand with depression but it can respond well to mindfulness techniques such as meditation, which you can practise anywhere, a hospital bed, your favourite armchair, or even while out walking. If you are able to exercise, try hatha yoga, which calms the mind, while keeping your body flexible.

Mindfulness activities, such as adult colouring books, are a great way to shift your mental focus; while you are concentrating on something very specific, even for a short period, worries and concerns can fall away – and the benefits are cumulative. The more you practise mindfulness, the better you feel.

Live Better With has a range of recommended books and products that can help with the mental and psychological aspects of cancer and cancer treatment.

Rest when you need to

Community member, Tina, says that although, on some days, she looks fine, ‘Most days to get dressed is an achievement’ and she admits that she ‘fell asleep at the cinema on Christmas Eve . . . then at the panto on Boxing Day’, neither of which will surprise anyone living with cancer and cancer treatment. For Tina, it’s a small price to pay ‘to still be here’.

But Christmas and New Year activities can be exhausting, as can any special event, so one of the things we urge you to do, not just in January but throughout the year, is to get the rest that you need – it’s part of the healing process. Factor in something soothing when you settle down for that rest, as that will help you to make the most of it; using aromatherapy oils is an excellent way to do this, or try an eye mask.

Keeping active

Whatever stage you have reached with your cancer treatment, it’s important to keep mobile, even if it’s only for very short periods or if you are confined to bed for much of the time.

The Live Better With Guide to Cancer and Exercise is packed full of advice, information and recommendations. As well as the physical benefits, exercise can release endorphins – body chemicals that can help us to cope with pain and stress and make us feel happier!

Some drugs, such as hormone therapy, which is widely used to treat breast cancer, can cause joint pain; so, avoid weight-bearing exercises and take up swimming instead – highly recommended by several of our community members. Swimming, however, is best avoided during radiotherapy and chemotherapy due to the increased risk of skin reactions (radiotherapy) or infections (chemotherapy) so we recommend waiting until your treatment is finished before plunging into the pool.

Check with your GP or specialist cancer nurse before starting any exercise programme, to ensure that it is right for you.

Accentuate the positive

If New Year resolutions haven’t worked for you in the past, then they are unlikely to work for you when you’re dealing with cancer. Try taking each day as it comes, instead, and set aside just a few minutes daily to reflect on anything good that has happened. This can be something as simple as having a really good cup of tea, sitting in the sunshine, or reading an enjoyable book. Aim to jot down ‘three good things’ each day, as this will help you to ‘focus on what is, rather than what if’, a mantra recommended by the Live Better With community.

Action for Happiness has some excellent tips and recommendations on incorporating gratitude into our daily lives. And in case you think that it’s inappropriate to talk about gratitude in the context of cancer, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that, as Action for Happiness explains, being grateful has been shown to help people cope with stress and can have a beneficial effect on the heart rate.

When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the writer and neurologist, Oliver Sacks, chose gratitude as the theme of his last book. ‘I cannot pretend I am without fear,’ he wrote.’ But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved . . . I have been given much and I have given something in return . . . Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.’

Strength in numbers

As Tina, whom we mentioned above, remarked, ‘I feel alone a lot of the time and unless you are in the same situation people have no idea how mentally and physically frustrating cancer is.’

This is where the Live Better With Cancer Community Forum can make a difference. Whatever you are struggling with, the chances are that someone else who has cancer is going through, or has gone through, something similar. So why not start the year by joining? It’s completely free and you’ll find that the Live Better With Community is friendly, welcoming, and always ready to lend a helpful online hand – and they’re good listeners. There is plenty of shared laughter too and, as we have so often heard, ‘laughter is the best medicine’. (Actually there is a good deal of truth in that; laughter, it turns out, decreases stress hormones, increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies!)

When it comes to actual, as opposed to virtual, friends and acquaintances, it’s fine to be choosy.  Make 2019 the year that you spend time with the people who make you feel better – better about yourself, better about life, and better about the world in general – and carry on that way. And, by contrast, keep a strict limit on the time you spend with anyone who saps your energy. As a wise soul once remarked, ‘People are either heaters or drains. Stick to the heaters.’ When it comes to living with cancer, we couldn’t agree more.

Visit the Live Better With Cancer Community Forum – for information, advice, tips and suggestions, and to post your own questions.

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