April 6, 2020

Coping with Cancer and COVID-19

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Wendy Baer, MD, Director of Psychiatric Oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, says that by talking about COVID-19, we can manage the worry and move forward as safely as possible.

Cancer Was a Crash Course in Covid-19 Preparation

People in treatment for cancer during COVID-19 are going to worry more because of the reality that they are more vulnerable to infection. People in cancer treatment already know about the importance of hand washing, not touching your face and distancing yourself from people who are sick or have been exposed to many people who could be potentially sick. As a result, you are able to educate and support others who are just learning about minimizing risk of infection.

Medical organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Health and World Health Organization are pushing out helpful information via websites and social media during the COVID-19 crisis including specifics for people in active cancer treatment. Stay informed, rely on reliable sources, but also pick a time to turn it off. Limit-setting is a critical skill in times of stress. Know your limit for news and social media. Often people need to turn off information-gathering at dinner time, so they can relax and quiet their mind before bedtime.

Managing Anxiety

All the strategies for managing anxiety in the setting of cancer still apply now more than ever.

Anxiety is a normal and necessary reaction to a dangerous situation. This is because the emotion causes you to carefully consider your situation and behave in a way that keeps you safe. For example, anxiety is what gets you to wash hands. However, anxiety becomes problematic when your thoughts about getting sick are excessive, your mood is constantly edgy and irritable, and your behavior makes it worse (hoarding toilet paper or using drugs or alcohol). Call your oncology team or your primary care doctor if you are experiencing symptoms that may meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. Treatment for anxiety works.

These resources may be helpful:

Quiet Your Mind

Beyond the basics, managing anxiety requires that you learn to manage your mind. Try to be aware of your emotions and thoughts. Consider writing them down. Practice talking to yourself in a caring and compassionate way.

Look and listen for what is actually working around you – the electricity, the water, the trees, the birds, the radio (change the channel if what you are hearing is upsetting), a kid who is actually doing virtual school, a religious/community group that sent an uplifting video, spring flowers and trees. Training your mind to notice and be amazed by the world around you is considered a healthy, sophisticated, psychological process.

Strengthen Your Immune System

Focus on the basics: sleep, diet and exercise, modalities that are evidence-based interventions for worry and fatigue.

  • Seriously double down on your efforts with your sleep habits. Set a bedtime and a wake time, avoid caffeine after noon and practice relaxation one hour before bed.
  • Don't keep the news on in your bedroom. We all want to stay informed, but our bodies and minds need a reset.
  • Avoid more than one drink at night as alcohol disrupts sleep.
  • Eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains; anti-inflammatory foods are cancer fighters.
  • Move your body, stretch, dance, do yoga or tai chi online.
  • Practice physical therapy exercises three times a day.
  • A daily morning walk, if able to get outside, not only reduces stress but also promotes better sleep. Practice social distancing.

Portions of this content are excerpted and adapted from a blog article written by Dr. Baer for Young Survival Coalition.

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