Life Wellbeing Coping with cancer: things you can do to feel better every day
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Coping with cancer: things you can do to feel better every day

Your mental wellbeing is imperative if you've been diagnosed with cancer or have a loved one that has been.
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Stress: it’s the currency of choice for living our modern, fast-paced lives, and that payment takes its toll on our bodies, relationships and overall wellbeing.

It’s also a major player in wearing down our mental resilience over time and something that people managing a cancer diagnosis and treatment are particularly vulnerable to.

While research tells us that stress is not a cause of cancer itself, it can greatly impact the family members and friends of someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. The added stress of potentially losing a loved one to illness and the pressure it holds has also been shown to lower the immune system and affect our overall sense of wellbeing.

Moreover, you don’t have to find yourself unwell to do things that promote wellness.

Arielle Furneaux is a clinical social worker. She told The New Daily it was very important for people to be proactive with their mental health.

“Many people focus their attention on their physical health, going to the gym and monitoring their nutrition, but lose sight of their mental health,” she said. “With poor mental health, a person can be at risk of burnout at work, isolation from important relationships, and in the most severe cases, suicide.

“Just as we can change our diets to have better physical wellbeing, we can do specific things to enhance our mental wellbeing, too.”

Staying in the moment can be particularly important for people coping with difficult diagnoses like cancer, where there may be a tendency to worry about and focus on what the future holds.

When it comes to cancer, there is a lot of uncertainty and worry
When it comes to cancer, there is a lot of uncertainty and worry.

One of the best ways to combat stress and worry is a practice called “mindfulness”. It is a psychological technique that anyone can employ and involves focusing on all your senses to fully appreciate the internal and external experiences of the present moment.

“It also involves removing judgment from the equation,” Ms Furneaux said. “We’re not judging ourselves, we are noticing.”

Ms Furneaux suggests using the technique while eating, brushing your teeth or hand-washing dishes, focusing all your mental energy on observing what your body is doing in that exact moment.

“By regularly participating in these sorts of exercises, you can start to feel more at ease just being in the present moment. Mindfulness does take work, though; it’s not called mindfulness ‘practice’ for nothing,” she said.

Another exercise that is especially useful for dealing with anxiety or panic involves listing specific things you can see, hear and touch in your immediate physical environment.

“I call it the ‘5-4-3-2-1’ exercise,” Ms Furneaux explained. “You start by listing five specific things you can see, followed by five sounds and then five things you can touch with some part of your body or sensations within your body.”

You repeat the exercise, naming new things where possible, then move down to just three and finally just one.

“By grounding oneself in the immediate physical environment, you can reel yourself back to the present,” she explained. “And, as a result, feel calmer and more emotionally safe.”

It is also a good idea to get outside for at least 15 minutes every day, eat a balanced diet and get some regular exercise. A good way to wean yourself into a exercise regime is to join a running group or sign up to a fun run so you have a goal to work towards and a support system to keep you on track.

The Mother's Day Classic fun run is a great way to get fit and support cancer research
The Mother’s Day Classic fun run is a great way to get fit and support cancer research.

Gratitude journaling can also help people focus on the things they are happy about and that bring them joy.

Ms Furneaux said there are some important warning signs we should all try and tune into.

“Lifestyle changes can be a major warning sign for burn out or becoming unwell,” she said. “You might notice that you’re sleeping a lot more than usual, or a lot less. Also, you could be eating a lot more or a lot less. Of course, these signs could be due to physical illness, too, so important to go to a doctor to rule out anything medical.”

Increased tearfulness and emotionality, a desire to self-isolate, increased sensitivity or hostility can all be signs you are becoming unwell.

If you’re feeling at risk of burnout, it can be helpful to buddy up with a colleague who can help watch out for signs that you aren’t doing so well. If they notice any of those signs (like getting snappy, or eating lunch alone for a few days in a row), invite them to gently point those out to you and ask if you need some support.

It is also always a good idea to discuss your feelings and concerns with your medical practitioner or GP.

Anyone experiencing trouble with their mental health is urged to contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for support and referral to resources.

Practicing Mindfulness

“A common mindfulness exercise is eating something ‘mindfully’, with your fullest attention. You can do this exercise by getting a small lolly like a Mintie. Start by getting a wrapped-up Mintie and notice what it looks like, its shape and colours. Feel the Mintie in the palm of your hand, noticing its weight and temperature. Run your fingers across its surfaces. Then, slowly unwrap it. Again, feel its surfaces. Then smell it, trying to identify any aroma. Hold it in your hand, squeeze it. When you finally pop it into your mouth, hold it there for a minute. Close your eyes and notice what it feels like in your mouth, how much space it takes up. When you chew it, notice what that process is like. Is it tough to chew? Is it sticky, soft? Slow down the process of eating that Mintie as long as you can, appreciating every dimension of the experience. Try to draw it out for five minutes.” – Arielle Furneaux


The New Daily is a media partner of the Women in Super Mother’s Day Classic, which takes place in 100 locations around Australia on Sunday May 14, raising money for the National Breast Cancer Foundation to help fund breast cancer research.

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