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Cancer and COVID-19: Coping With Anxiety

Cancer and COVID-19: Coping With Anxiety
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Published on March 24, 2020

First it was the sports leagues suspending play. Then schools and bars and restaurants were closed. Now in some places it’s non-essential businesses and curfews.

And on top of all that, you hear people with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.

Each day the news seems to get worse, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19.

For cancer patients and care partners especially, the stress, fear and uncertainty can trigger panic and anxiety.

“Many people with cancer are sort of used to digesting information about what percentage of people respond to what treatments, survival rates over time, new and upcoming treatments, pros and cons of different approaches,” said David Cates, a clinical psychologist and behavioral health consultant to the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Biocontainment Unit and National Quarantine Center. The center housed 15 American passengers released in late February from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

“What’s different here with COVID-19 is that it’s so new, and we are still trying to understand it. The usual coping mechanisms that people with cancer develop really don’t work as well in this situation, because there is just so much unknown.”

Below are several things you can do to manage your anxiety and fears.

Limit your news consumption. Media coverage can amplify anxiety and fear, Cates said. “Media is a business,” he said. “It’s designed to catch your attention: big bold headlines, breaking news announcements—they do increase our stress. So, watching a lot of news is not helpful after a while.” He suggests checking the news twice a day, perhaps once in the morning and again in the afternoon or evening. Also stick to trusted sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and your state and local health departments, said Kristen Lee, a licensed independent clinical social worker and lead faculty for behavioral science at Northeastern University in Boston.

Lean on your experience. Cancer patients probably already know about the fragility and preciousness of life, said Lee, who is also a spokesperson for the National Association of Social Workers and the author of “Reset: Make the Most of Your Stress: Your 24-7 Guide for Well-Being.” They have had time to reflect and think about what’s important in life. That can be a real source of strength. Ask yourself, “‘What do I have within me that I can draw upon?’” she said.

Talk to your healthcare provider. Speak with your oncologist about your risk for contracting coronavirus. Ask questions. Should you postpone treatment? Can you receive treatment away from other people? “‘Are you taking a drug that is compromising your immune system?’” Cates said. “Are you in remission?’ Only the doctor can tell them if they are at greater risk depending on their overall health. Maybe, in some cases, they are not at an increased risk.”

Focus on the positive. Remember, most coronavirus cases resolve themselves without any intervention, Cates said. “People focusing on that and not so much on the smaller number of people that have succumbed to it is important,” he said. “That’s not to say you shouldn’t take all the precautions—just put it into perspective. It’s sometimes helpful and reassuring that the vast majority of people who have had the illness have been cleared.” Lee agreed. “Trying to maintain a measure of hopefulness and optimism can be a real protective factor.”

Stay connected. Lacking social connection is as dangerous as obesity, physical inactivity, air pollution and smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, said Cates, citing a study published in PLoS Medicine. Make sure you stay in touch with your support system through telephone or video calls, group chats, texting or social media. Lee also suggested talking to a loved one through a glass storm door or a neighbor from across the yard.

Get outdoors. Social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t go outside. Just be sure to adhere to social distancing guidelines, i.e. staying about six feet away from other people, Cates said. Spending time in nature can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. One study found that exercising outdoors has been associated with “greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.”

Try not to catastrophize. “If you watch a lot of news, it’s hard not to,” Cates said. “This is not an existential threat. It’s a huge threat to a lot of people. We will get through it. And if you engage in catastrophizing, going from one negative piece of information or experience to imagining the worst, that is not helpful.”

Focus on what you can control. You can’t control the spread of the coronavirus or the impact on the economy. But you can eat right, exercise, sleep well and manage your stress—all of which can boost your immune system.

In a nutshell: “History shows us people are very adaptable,” Lee said. “Things don’t last forever—just looking at the big picture. We’re capable of healing and recovery and compartmentalizing and still finding meaning and humor, joy, even when it feels really grim and hard.”

~Megan Trusdell


Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

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