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Cancer is a Grinch: Tips for ditching the “bah humbugs"

pearman_timothy.jpgBy Timothy Pearman, PhD

Even as those around you wrap gifts, bake cookies and deck the halls, cancer can make it difficult to “get in the spirit.” Worse, it can be an especially lonely and uncertain place as we move through the holidays and into a new year.

You aren’t alone.

Today, there are over 15.5 million cancer survivors in the United States, representing 4.8% of the population. Approximately 17% have survived for more than 20 years after their diagnosis. These optimistic figures indicate that, in many ways, cancer is transitioning to a chronic, manageable disease.

While this may be cause for some celebration, this transition also greatly expands the need for psychosocial and supportive care for survivors as well as those “somewhere in the middle.” Depression and anxiety affect nearly half of cancer survivors at some point during their cancer journey, and most experience fatigue significant enough to disrupt their daily routine.

Unfortunately, there are many barriers to getting adequate psychosocial care.  But, the take home message is this: even though depression, anxiety, fatigue and chemo brain are very common in people treated for cancer, they are also largely treatable – if your care team knows about them.

In many cases, it’s up to the patient and, in some cases, the caregiver, to be their own best advocates. It’s important for them to tell their medical providers if they are experiencing the symptoms mentioned above or any others. 

There are a number of tools your doctor may recommend and many can be found online.  Just a few that can be helpful include:

  • Support groups, 
  • Nutrition and exercise programs
  • Integrated mind/body approaches

Support groups bring people together to share experiences and ideas for reducing depression and anxiety. They may also encourage people to become more active in treatment decision making, managing side effects, and talking to their doctors.  Participation in nutrition and exercise programs also can be helpful.  At this time of year, it’s easy to over indulge. The right nutrition program can get you back on track - fueling your body with healthy snacks and meals. In addition, many patients find that alternative therapies such as acupuncture and massage have a calming, “peace of mind” impact that can counter stress and anxiety.

Programs like these are offered free of charge throughout the country by many health systems and organizations such as the Cancer Support Community, which has over 170 locations worldwide, including affiliates and health care partnerships. Our Supportive Oncology Program at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University offers a wide range of support groups, services, and specialized survivorship plans for Northwestern Medicine’s patients and families.

This holiday season give yourself the gift of advocacy. Tell your treatment providers about symptoms you are having.  Find and take advantage of the wealth of supportive services that are available in most communities.  And, help others by sharing your ideas for ditching the “bah humbugs.” While cancer may keep this from being the best holiday ever, there are things you can do to infuse some cheer.

Timothy Pearman, PhD, is Director of the Supportive Oncology Program at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and Professor in the Departments of Medical Social Sciences and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.