Q. Since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve been anxious and sometimes feel overwhelmed by my thoughts, which I can’t seem to “turn off.” Are there any ways I can help myself to feel more calm?

A. Anxiety is a natural emotional experience for everyone. When someone has to cope with a cancer diagnosis, anxiety (or worry) can increase, intruding on an individual’s ability to regain a sense of calm, clear his or her thoughts and feel more control over the issue at hand. Chronic anxiety can lead to fatigue and depression over time, so it is important to find techniques that can offer relief from the stress of cancer, even if just for short periods of time.

When confronted with crisis, our bodies trigger a “fight or flight” response. Part of this physical response is rapid, shallow breathing, which increases blood flow through the heart and puts extra oxygen into our bodies. A person under chronic stress will continue to take shorter, more shallow breaths, which will in increase stress and create a continual state of anxiety.

Here’s a simple breathing exercise that can help calm you:

  • Sitting down, place one hand on your chest and the other over your navel.
  • Take three breaths and observe your breathing. For most people, the chest area tends to rise more than the abdomen.
  • Now, take in a deep breath and extend your abdomen. Picture your lungs as long, narrow balloons, filling up from the end to the front; and from the bottom to the top.
  • Hold the breath and silently count to five; then, exhale loudly.
  • Do this for three breaths and then sit quietly for a moment. If you feel lightheaded, hold the next breath for a shorter time. Most people find there is a calming feeling that follows.

The beauty of this exercise is you can do it anywhere, anytime. The goal is to reduce stress by returning yourself to a natural state of breathing.

You can find more relaxation techniques in CancerCare’s fact sheet, “Relaxation Techniques and Mind/Body Practices: How They Can Help You Cope With Cancer.”

Answered by Richard Dickens, MS, LCSW-R

Q. What are support groups and how can they help me? How do I know if they’re right for me?

A. A cancer diagnosis can be very isolating. Regardless of whether you are a patient or a caregiver, you can be immersed in reacting and adjusting to various aspects of the disease. The responsibility to find, manage and pay for care can be hugely overwhelming. It’s hard to feel hopeful, or have any sense of confidence in your ability to cope or make appropriate decisions, if you are feeling small and powerless and very much alone in the experience. That’s where a support group can be helpful. It provides a chance to meet and interact with other people who can understand your experience. While friends and family members might be uncomfortable, maybe feeling useless or scared, not knowing what to say or do, the members of the support group, with the guidance of a trained moderator, can be there with you in your process.

In addition to lessening one’s sense of isolation, support groups can be a source of valuable information. Not surprisingly, members find that sharing resources and coping skills can be highly rewarding, whether on the giving or the receiving end of the transaction. Topics often include where to find reliable medical information, how to communicate with doctors, challenges of treatment and coping techniques. Much of one’s experience in a support group depends on the chemistry of who is in the group and how it is moderated. One thing common to most groups is the potential for strong emotional expression, which can be uncomfortable for some people. Other factors to consider are how you feel sharing things about yourself in a group of people, and whether or not you can meet any attendance guidelines the group might have.

Bottom line? If you are feeling alone and needing information and emotional support, a group might be a valuable way of connecting with people to help you cope with your situation. If you have questions, reach out to the moderator so you can get the information to make an informed decision.

Answered by David Horne, MSW, LMSW

Q. Are there books written specifically for children that can help them understand and cope with a parent’s cancer diagnosis?

A. After talking to your child about a cancer diagnosis, books can be a helpful follow-up to encourage learning more about cancer, exploring feelings and asking questions. It can also be a nice opportunity to spend quiet time together or give your child some autonomy to learn independently. Books or other publications are available for different age groups and developmental stages. It is important to choose books that are appropriate for your child by not only looking at the recommended age on the book, but also by looking through the book in its entirety.

CancerCare offers publications and fact sheets:

Suggested Books for Children

  • “Mom and the Polka Dot Boo Boo” tells a story about a young mother’s journey through breast cancer (ages 2-5)
  • “Our Mom Has Cancer” helps children understand and cope with a parent’s cancer (ages 5-12)
  • “Our Mom is Getting Better” and Our Dad is Getting Better helps children understand a parent’s special needs when recovering from active treatment (ages 5-12)
  • “Because Someone I Love Has Cancer” offers activities to help children navigate a loved one’s cancer experience (ages 6-12)
  • “A Tiny Boat At Sea: How to Help Children Who Have a Parent Diagnosed With Cancer” by Izetta Smith (all ages)
  • “Our Family Has Cancer Too!” By Christine Clifford. A cartoon illustrated book that describes a family’s experience with cancer and how they coped. Ages 3-16.
  • “Life Isn’t Always a Day at the Beach” by Ganz High Five Publishing. A cartoon illustrated workbook for kids to color themselves to help kids learn and understand their feelings about their parent’s cancer. Ages 4-13.

KidsCope has a free comic book called Kemo Shark to help kids understand cancer and chemotherapy.

The National Cancer Institute has excellent free booklets to help teens cope with cancer:

If you choose to share books with your child about cancer, be sure to check in with them to see if they have questions about what they read or if they want to talk about it. Our staff of professional oncology social workers are knowledgeable in children’s issues related to a parent’s diagnosis, sibling or other loved one. To speak with a social worker, call us at 800-813-HOPE (4673) or email info@cancercare.org.

Answered by Victoria Puzo, MSW, LMSW

Q. My teenage son has had body-image issues since having cancer. His treatments caused him to gain weight and surgeries left him with scars. How can I help him deal with this?

A. Body changes may make your teen feel uncomfortable about how they look. These feelings may be strong enough to make them want to avoid their friends, school, public places or having their picture taken. Adolescence is a time where teens engage in social comparisons, often comparing themselves to their peers and friends. It is important to validate your son’s concerns regarding his body image. Self-esteem is very fragile and is often impacted by not only how we view ourselves, but how others view us as well.

Keep an open line of communication with your son about this topic. Explain to him why his treatment is so important even though it has caused him to gain weight. Try to help him understand why his body is changing so that he can understand these changes are not permanent. You may also want to encourage him to engage in some types of physical activity when he is feeling up to it (activities approved by his oncologist or physical therapist). Also, you may want to consult with a nutritionist to create helpful and healthy eating plans while on treatment. It is important for your son to understand the reason behind his surgeries and scarring. Many times, a conversation before surgery can help teens prepare for body changes so that they are not such a shock. However, after the surgery site has healed, you can experiment with different types of make-up and concealers (there are special ones for scars). Also, different clothing styles may be able to cover the areas that your son is not comfortable exposing.

You can support your son during this time by doing some of the following:

  • Providing an outlet to express his feelings (art, music, writing, etc.)
  • Listening if and when he wants to talk about body image changes
  • Letting him know that you understand what he is feeling and that it is okay to feel the way that he does

Creating a safe space for him to share what he is going through is important. If necessary, reach out to your son’s social worker through the hospital or a child life specialist. It is possible that outside support is necessary in order to make your son feel heard.

Teens Living with Cancer has information to help teens learn about cancer, its treatment and how to cope. This site’s Dealing with It section talks about body issues, school, family and friends, and it helps teens connect with other teens who have cancer.

If you need additional support, feel free to reach out to CancerCare’s Hopeline (800-813-4673). We can provide psychosocial support as well as local referrals as needed.

Answered by Sarah Paul, MSW, LMSW