The word cancer alone is synonymous with psychological distress and we know that higher levels of distress are experienced by patients of childbearing age. Facing infertility regardless of whether it is temporary or permanent is often met with an acute stress reaction that might include difficulty sleeping, irritability, poor concentration and feeling agitated or ‘on edge’. In some cases, the trauma of receiving a diagnosis of cancer or infertility is so traumatic that the aforementioned symptoms continue beyond the expected one-month time frame. Grief reactions are also common, as well as a relatively higher proportion of depression and anxiety.
The purpose of this article is to provide you with some coping strategies for your toolkit to enhance your self-care and to promote your mental health and wellbeing.
Your Healthcare Team:
Remember that early detection screening saves lives, so if you are a genetic mutation carrier and are not having regular scans, please start.
Make sure your conversations with your healthcare professionals include fertility as a topic and where appropriate, consult a reproductive specialist early to be informed of your options for preserving your fertility. This can be an emotionally challenging time, so it may also be wise to engage a psychologist to at least monitor your mental health and offer therapeutic support if necessary.
You, as the patient, are the centre of your care. Do not be afraid to ask as many questions as you need and don’t wait for your doctor to raise issues of fertility with you. Start the conversations.
Managing Your Emotions:
It is normal for your moods to fluctuate when you’re experiencing such significant life stressors. Prioritising your own self-care is paramount and as Ashley Judd once said, “self-care isn’t selfish, it’s self-esteem.”
Engaging in your favourite leisure and pleasure activities, especially if they involve your favourite people, is really important. After all, pleasure is the opposite of stress, right? Here are 101 fun ideas to get you started.
Relaxation techniques such as those described in my previous article on managing scanxiety will also be useful including yoga, mindful meditation and even deep breathing strategies.
Fears, Anxiety & Unhelpful Thinking:
Our thinking can easily be distorted when faced with the threats of a cancer or infertility diagnosis, greatly impacting our emotional state. Jumping to conclusions and catastrophisation are two very common unhelpful thinking styles that often increase our anxieties.
Often, we overestimate or maximise the likely outcome of having difficult conversations with partners about your high-risk or fertility status and we certainly do that when we fear their reactions to seeing our changed bodies after surgeries for cancer treatment or cancer risk-reduction.
Should these kinds of worries be impacting on your relationships, mood or quality of life, perhaps consider talking to a psychologist who can help you develop some cognitive and behavioural strategies that can help. For a start, here are some brief thinking strategies that could be useful.
Sleep & Appetite
Good quality sleep and adequate dietary intake are vital for our wellbeing. If you are having trouble falling asleep, perhaps try an APP such as Calm for its many wonderful sleep stories and mindfulness soundtracks.
You may experience changes to your appetite which is very normal in reaction to stress. If your appetite reduces, try to motivate yourself to eat regularly by choosing your favourite foods or eating with friends in order to remind yourself to eat. Your brain cannot function optimally without adequate nutrition.
Everything improves if we are sleeping and eating well.
It may be very difficult to remind yourself of the things you have control over when so many parts of your life may feel completely out of your control.
Remember, that knowledge is power. Asking questions and making informed choices can give you a sense of control and empower you. This will also motivate you to cope in an active way through problem-solving what is within your control to change and focus on those things, providing you with hope and hopefulness.
I cannot emphasise this enough. Good quality social support is your number one coping tool.
I equally cannot emphasise this enough – YOU ARE NOT A BURDEN.
So many of my clients come in saying that they can’t ask for help because they don’t want to burden their friends and family. Trust me, they are keen to have something tangible that they can do to help you because believe it or not, they are also suffering from a sense of helplessness of not knowing what they can do for you. So please, ask them for what you need.
Grief and loss:
As I have written in previous articles, grief and loss are part and parcel of this entire cancer caper. Your number one task is to acknowledge it for what it is. Grief.
Your number two task is to feel it. All of it.
There are no magic wand answers to help you bypass grief and if you manage to temporarily evade it, it is more likely to come back down the track as something much worse.
Grief and loss counselling can help if you need something additional to leaning on your social supports.
Lastly, please remember, that while life throws us some difficult situations to face, we are very resilient creatures and there is always someone we can ask for help and many things we can do to alleviate our distress.
Dr Jodie Fleming is the author of breast cancer memoir A Hole in My Genes, a book filled with her professional and later personal candid, raw experiences of being diagnosed with two primary breast cancers at the age of 37 and later discovering she is BRCA1 positive. A Hole in My Genes is filled with all of the psychological tools Jodie used to navigate her way through her own cancer treatment with a healthy amount of family dysfunction to boot. You can find A Hole in My Genes in all your usual online bookstores in hard copy and eBook. You can also join Jodie on one of her international Wellness Retreats. For more, visit her websites drjodiefleming.com.au or thepsychologyofit.com.au.
This content is brought to you in partnership with Conceive Please.