How to Manage Your Anxiety When You Have Cancer During Covid-19

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Posted by Laura Lifshitz on November 6, 2020

Cancer comes in many different forms and affects people in different ways. Some people may suffer from cancer for genetic reasons and others unfortunately may become ill due to harmful products with serious side-effects. For example, there are now lawsuits against the makers of weight loss drug Belviq and heartburn medications Zantac, as recently it was revealed that cancer was a harmful side effect of both of these medications.

Having a serious health issue like Cancer, MS, Diabetes or any other concern is challenging enough with symptom management and in some cases, recovery and relapse. The anxiety over the “What if’s” when you are faced with a serious and potentially, fatal, disease is astronomical in itself. Now that our nation and the world at large is battling a major pandemic, thanks COVID-19, our collective anxiety as a nation is heightened whether you are healthy to start or not. Facing a major virus while also handling a major health concern only ups the stakes.

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Consider these statistics alone:

These statistics don’t reflect or account for how individuals with Cancer or other serious illnesses and health issues may cope with COVID-19 and their mental health. However, the CDC states that people who are more at risk for serious health repercussions during COVID-19 (Cancer patients, people with Diabetes, etc.) will be at a higher risk for anxiety and other stress symptoms.

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In fact, Counselor Linda Waters conducted her very own research after observing her brother’s struggle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on the effects of Cancer on mental health. While this doesn’t encompass other health concerns like Autoimmune disease, Diabetes, etc., it is still compelling that she shares that “Many people with Cancer report depression, anxiety, and even PTSD interwoven into their Cancer experience. They also report their mental health and counseling needs were unaddressed during cancer treatment, and that those needs remain after treatment ends.”

Knowing that the mental health stakes are exponentially higher for individuals coping with such illnesses during this pandemic, we spoke with two experts, Dr. Peter J. Economou, Ph.D., ABPP Board Certified Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy and Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC)-AASP, as well as Linda Waters, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS to share tips on how to manage anxiety during this uncertain time and public health crisis.

And at the end of it all, truly, many of us are struggling with anxiety and other mental health issues at this time so these tips are not only for people struggling to cope with say, Cancer and the threat of COVID-19, but for those of us who already started the pandemic with anxiety or, developed anxiety during this unsettled time: 

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Be Compassionate & Kind to Yourself! (And Others, Too):

Dr. Peter J. Economou, otherwise known as Dr. Pete, shares that showing compassion to ourselves and others is a great way to cope with the anxiety of living with an illness during this outbreak. It is crucial that you understand that this is a difficult time for you, especially if you are living with a serious illness and faced with high-risks due to COVID-19. With that said, it’s imperative that you are kind to yourself when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Extending this same kindness to others is key too.

Compassion is a helpful tool for combatting stress and anxiety during uncertain times. This can be both an inward and outward practice. For example, we can practice self-compassion such as forgiving yourself for making a mistake. We can practice compassion towards others by telling a loved one something nice or even practicing smiling with our eyes if we are wearing a mask,” shares Dr. Pete.

Restrict Your Daily News

Linda Waters suggests that one of the best ways to manage your mental health at this time is to restrict your intake of news media and social media to content that reflects how coronavirus impacts your geographic area, rather than how the pandemic is affecting the nation or the world.  

“Continuous information on the pandemic, through over-consumption of social media and the 24-hour news media, can be saturating and overwhelming. Instead, focus on how you can reduce your unique risks, as a person with Cancer or another illness, through appropriate social distancing, mask-wearing, and proper hand-hygiene.”

Avoid Either Overwhelming Yourself or Living Without a Schedule:

In order to care for your health at this time, or any time, Dr. Pete shares that it is important to not overwork yourself, or live without any real schedule. Allowing yourself to power through everything without taking breaks is a huge issue and will make your anxiety (and overall health) worse.

His reminder is so key: “It is so easy these days to have one day blend into another. Be sure to schedule yourself so that days feel as they did pre-COVID, say no to meetings that are outside of work hours within reason of course, and create task lists for each day.”

Making boundaries for yourself like you once did will also allow time for you to care for your body and attend doctor visits, whether virtual or in-person, and give you time for rest and relaxation. Relaxing during this time is hard enough so, if we don’t give your bodies enough time to unwind, they will constantly be in a state of stress.

And don’t forget, above all else, Dr. Pete says to tell yourself it’s ok if you do not get everything done on that list.

Be Mindful—of Your Mind

Dr. Pete’s orders? Take at least anywhere from 5-10 or optimally, 30-60 minutes of time to do mindfulness exercises, like meditation. 

For me, mediation has been very helpful for my anxiety. While I do not manage a serious illness, I still have had periods of panic and anxiety, and meditation and breathing has done wonders. The Mayo Clinic shares both mine and Dr. Pete’s testimony to the practice: “If stress has you anxious, tense and worried, consider trying meditation. Spending even a few minutes in meditation can restore your calm and inner peace.”

I personally use the app Calm to do guided meditations. You can try it out for free and then, pay a very reasonable monthly, yearly or lifetime fee.

Be Mindful of Your Body, Too

Pay attention to signs from your own body that you may be in distress what with your current health issue, as well as the stress from the pandemic.

Linda Waters shares that “Sleep disturbance and increased fatigue both indicate and cause distress among those with Cancer.  Recognize how your own thinking related to the Coronavirus and your Cancer diagnosis may be contributing to distress.”  Worries about contracting the Coronavirus, or loved ones contracting the Coronavirus may also interfere with sleep, contributing to more fatigue.  Other body signs indicating distress include headaches, muscle tension, stomach issues, and shaking.”

This would be the same for people who have an autoimmune disease or any serious illness. Stress can really wreak havoc on our bodies.

Get Moving for a Healthy Mind & Body

There is nothing like exercise to keep your anxiety managed and also, your body healthy. Depending on your current health and individual symptoms and treatment plans, you can find a form of exercise that works for you, whether it’s virtual yoga, weightlifting at home or going for a run outdoors.

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