Receiving a cancer diagnosis is certainly stressful news.  The term “stress” refers to an outside circumstance.  Behavioral health therapists use the term “distress” to label our internal response to stress.  In explaining this to my patients, I say that stress is the toxins in the  air around me.  Distress is when I breath in the toxins  The goal of monitoring and managing distress is similar to learning to use a hazmat suit and oxygen tank in a toxic environment.

Even though it is very common for those receiving a cancer diagnosis to focus on physical symptoms, medical treatments and side effects, it may surprise you to discover that you may also suffer in non-physical ways.  This is because we are not just physical beings, but have mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects, too.  

Distress is an umbrella term that covers the normal thoughts and feelings that normal people have when bad things happen.  The feelings can be: sad, mad, anxious, worried, scared – and most of the time, a perplexing mosaic of these emotions.  Distressing thoughts tend to center around the fear of the unknown. “Is my treatment going to work?”  “Is it going to hurt?”  “Is it expensive?”  “Will it change how I work?”  “How will this affect my retirement?” 

A very important part of helping you in your journey with cancer is to help you monitor and manage your distress levels –  just as you would monitor any other side effect.  There are two primary reasons why this is so important.  First reason: as distress levels rise, quality of life sinks.  But by working on lowering distress levels, you will improve your quality of life.  When a disease process is usurping the controls you normally have, one of the most important methods to reclaim control is using the tools you do have to manage distress levels.  

The second reason to manage distress levels is because when you feel less distress, you tend to heal better. This is because your mind and your body are really one unit – connected in a myriad of ways we don’t completely understand.

Basically there are three tool boxes that you already have to draw from to help manage your distress levels.  The first one is your internal resources: your psychological strengths, your intellect, your resiliency.  Internal resources are the resources that you have built into your brain during previous times of crisis.  Sometimes these were minor changes you made to handle small crisis and you recovered in hours or days.  Cancer tends to be a major crisis and many patients tell me that it is the worst thing that has ever happened to them.  This will usually mean that distress levels are higher than they have ever been.  This also means that it may take more time to successfully manage.

The second toolbox which provides your resources to manage your distress levels is your support system. This includes your friends family and community.  These are the people who call, send cards, bring casseroles, and when you have a bad day, listen. Many times cancer patients voice surprise by the number of people that rally around them.  (As well as the people who don’t know what to do and seem to move a little farther away.)  I encourage people to realize that the bigger the crisis –  the bigger the team needs to be.

The third toolbox for dealing with crisis and distress is your medical team.  Many patients are surprised to learn that they may need several doctors, nutritional specialists, physical therapists, and behavioral health support.  Many patients also find relief from the distress by seeking out relaxation therapies, massage, yoga etc.


Clinically speaking, the simple answer is yes!  You have done this before in other situations.  I am not going to tell you it’s easy, but I will tell you patients consistently improve the quality of their life by initiating steps which lower distress.  Even though at the beginning of the process, it may seem overwhelming, let me suggest three questions to begin lowering your distress level, and thereby improving your quality of life.

First, ask yourself, what internal resources have I used in the past when I’ve been in difficult or negative situations?  Usually in discussing this question with patients, I remind them that the wrench I use on my mower can be used on my motorcycle, and on my automobile.  Even if being diagnosed with cancer is the most difficult and most distressing situation you have ever been in, the tools that you have learned to use from other life experiences can also work in this situation.

Second, what things do I need from my support team and who do I need to add to my support team?  It is not unusual for new situations to call for new team members and new behaviors.  The more specific you are with identifying your needs, the easier it is for your team to help you meet those needs.  Many people on your support team will not know what support you need until you tell them.

Third, what do I need from my medical team?  Your medical team is likely to have more members than you might have imagined or have used in the past.  Take a look at all the departments and providers that are available at your treatment site.  It is not unusual  to add providers and services.  That is part of the rationale behind OncoPower: to add value to your treatment plan.