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Finding relief from the five categories of cancer-related distress

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is stressful. No matter if your illness was caught early or is advanced, whether you live close to the hospital or hours away, or whether your treatment plan requires surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or all of the above, hearing the word cancer can change your life in profound ways.

So, what is distress and how is it different from stress? The National Academy of Sciences explains: Stress responses are normal reactions to environmental or internal worries and can be considered adaptive in nature. Distress occurs when stress is severe, prolonged or both.

"Distress from cancer evolves out of so many aspects of diagnosis, treatment and chronic management of the disease," says Donna Murphy, MSW, director of Patient and Family Support Services at the Rogel Cancer Center. "There are many impact points that can cause concern and worry. Many decisions must be made, such as what to share with loved ones and children or managing the impact of work and income just to name a few."

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network puts distress into five categories:

  • physical
  • emotional
  • practical
  • family
  • spiritual/religious

Practical distress includes those real world issues like rides to and from treatment or managing insurance and other costs.

Murphy emphasizes the importance for patients to not ignore the distress caused by a cancer diagnosis.

"The need to manage distress comes from a person's yearning to find some balance and routine to regain the feelings of competence and confidence in their daily life. The things that bring us pleasure can still be a source of pleasure with some modifications,” she says.

The Rogel Cancer Center offers many free programs and services to regain feelings of normalcy, beauty, joy, hope and even humor, including:

For patients in need of counseling, the PsychOncology program provides therapists who specialize in helping people going through cancer treatment.

Deacon Wayne Charlton, Rogel Cancer Center chaplain, says oftentimes patients face existential questions after a cancer diagnosis. Charlton provides spiritual care support to patients of any and all faiths, including those who don’t practice religion.

"At the most basic level, spiritual care is about the human connection, another person along the journey of life, who can accompany someone through unfamiliar territory long enough to help them regain their bearings and, hopefully, end up knowing, in the deepest part of their being, that everything is going to be OK, no matter what."

We have many free services to help ease the burden of cancer on your and your family

Continue reading about cancer-related distress and ways to cope

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Thrive Issue: 
Spring, 2020