When I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2018, I felt very afraid but I knew that I needed to stay mentally healthy. When you stay mentally healthy, you manage the physical issues far better. I had had a colonoscopy two years prior to this and there had been a few abnormal structural changes but it wasn’t emphasized to me and I assumed everything was fine. The only reason I went for another colonoscopy was that due to having Cystic Fibrosis, I experienced symptoms similar to IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). I decided to get a colonoscopy to see whether this procedure could spot any of the causes.
Thankfully, the cancer was spotted early (Stage 1) and it was treated aggressively. My Doctor said that I would need to have part of my colon removed (about 15cms). They certainly weren’t messing about! On top of colon cancer, I ended up with a bowel blockage after the surgery and that was absolute hell.
While I was in the hospital and struggling with my health, I worried that my partner wouldn’t stay with me because he lost his late wife to cancer. I had so much going through my mind and felt lost and vulnerable.
Take it one day at a time
Instead of catastrophising about the future, I tried to take it one day at a time. If I focused on the future and all the “what ifs” it just made me feel more worried and there was nothing I could do at that moment about the future. All I could do was take care of myself and heal in order to stay mentally healthy. Dealing with life in bite-sized chunks felt far more manageable than imaging the whole ‘mountain’ ahead all at once. I also tried to avoid predicting the future negatively and tried to maintain a sense of optimism.
Keep on top of the negative thoughts
It’s normal to be swamped with negative fearful thoughts but remember that they are just thoughts. Thoughts aren’t facts and they may never come true. What’s the point of believing the thoughts that lead to feelings of fear and hopelessness when they might not even be accurate? Cognitive behavioural therapy taught me to dismiss many of my fearful thoughts. I tell myself that it could happen but then again, it might not and often say to myself: “I will cross that bridge if/when I come to it”. Then I would distract myself with something else. Staying optimistic or at least neutral is a great tool for coping with cancer and a way to stay mentally healthy.
Find a support network to stay mentally healthy
If you already have a good support network that’s great. Friends and family can be a godsend when you need pep talks and an objective perspective. If you are facing cancer alone, get in touch with one of the many cancer charities. They are amazing at providing mental health support and you will feel less alone in your experience. When you can chat with someone else going through a similar experience, you will find added strength.
Don’t consult “Dr Google”
I wouldn’t recommend googling if you want to stay mentally healthy. Unless you can maintain perspective, be careful about what you read online. There is no filter to what you will read and it can send you down the road of catastrophising and panicking unnecessarily. For me personally, I like to know as much as possible and will always ask the doctor loads of questions but I take with a pinch of salt, the information I read on google.
Engage in self-care daily
This is the time to really look after yourself and cherish yourself. If you can, get out in nature. Eat well and include exercise if at all possible. Use this time to care for yourself. When we engage in self-care we automatically send ourselves a message that we are valuable and worthy. Develop a self-care routine that is easy to follow and this will absolutely help you to stay mentally healthy.
It’s so easy to default to the negative and go into self-pitying mode. While some of that is normal and to be expected, you can counteract that negativity by keeping a gratitude journal. Every day, write down at least three things that made you feel happy or made you smile that day. It could be the simplest of things – the sun shining, birdsong, getting a good night’s sleep or really enjoying a lovely cup of tea. It’s vital to keep this up to help your brain focus on the good stuff as well. Cancer may be with you for a while but you can still find moments of joy every day. Focus on these instead of your fear.
Pets are amazing for our mental health. They can give us a purpose and our brains release a feel-good hormone called Oxytocin when we share affection with a pet. If a pet would be too much for you, you could join a website like “borrowmydoggy” or get a friend to bring their pet over for a cuddle. Pets take our minds off of our worries and they can be amazing company. They’re not for everyone but I personally love animals. I am allergic though so still looking for a super hypoallergenic dog…maybe a cavapoo…hmmmmn.
A cancer diagnosis is a scary moment and if we aren’t careful it can take us on a downward spiral from which we never recover. If you feel like you are growing and feel unable to stay mentally healthy, get in touch. I offer counselling for long term conditions and cancer sufferers. Or contact any counsellor that you feel would help you to keep your head above water. Talk to someone, don’t cope on your own. There is always help out there and when you feel less lonely and supported you will automatically cope far better.