Just Diagnosed with Lung Cancer? 10 Tips for Coping

Patient Expert

The statistics are dire: lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in American men and women. It’s scary. It’s painful, both emotionally and physically. But there are ways to cope with lung cancer; indeed, ways to live with it: if not forever, at least for right now.

1. Be honest with your family.

Don’t try to hide the fact that you have a serious illness. The closest members of your family, the ones who love you and care about you the most, deserve to know that you’re going through a life-threatening experience. That means sharing not just with your significant other, but with elderly parents and children, to the extent they’re able to understand and cope with your diagnosis.

2. Don’t keep a stiff upper lip.

Having cancer is tough, perhaps the toughest thing you’ll ever go through. And while the journey requires a huge amount of strength, that doesn’t mean you have to put on a stoic front 24/7.

If something hurts, tell your doctor or a nurse. Admitting pain doesn’t make you a lesser person, and your medical team is there to help.

If you’re sad, angry, or feel hopeless, don’t bury those feelings; better to let them out, if only in private. Screaming, crying, and pulling the covers over your head doesn’t mean you’re weak; it just means you’re human. Once you’ve dumped those negative emotions, you might very well feel a bit better.

3. Examine your worry priorities. Re-prioritize, if necessary.

Most cancer patients feel their diagnosis as a kick to the gut. Many also take it as a wakeup call. If you’re a constant worrier, stressing over everything from the size of the phone bill to who forgot to take out the garbage, you’ll probably discover that much of what you previously worried about really isn’t that important.

We all possess only so much energy for worry; reserve that energy for what really matters, like treatment decisions. Choose to let go of the “small stuff;” trust me, others will step in and handle your lawn-mowing and carpooling when you’re not able.

4. Say yes to offers of help.

You’ve always prided yourself on your self-sufficiency, right? “No thanks, I’m fine” has been your typical response when anyone offers you a hand.

It’s time to get over that attitude – like right now. When friends and family learn you have cancer, their immediate response will be “What can I do to help?” You answering “I don’t need anything” is not only untrue – it’s hurtful. It trivializes their well-intentioned offer.

Sure, you don’t want to just sit back like King Tut and be waited on night and day. But make a mental list of useful things people can do, and offer a few suggestions when someone says, “What can I do?” Pick up dry cleaning. Put up storm windows. Bake chocolate chip cookies Surely there’s something that would help you – and help them feel useful, as well.

5. Find a support group.

Some people get a lot out of support groups; some find them depressing. You won’t know which camp you’ll fall in until you try one.

For personal support group help, ask your hospital’s social services department about cancer support groups, lung cancer specifically if possible. And/or check out the Lung Cancer Alliance’s list of in-person support groups around the country; as well as online support groups, which are often active 24/7 and can be wonderfully helpful when you’re having those 2 a.m. blues.

6. Try to maintain a positive attitude.

Yes, lung cancer is a life-threatening illness. At best – depending on how advanced it is at time of diagnosis – only about half of lung cancer patients will reach the 5-year survival mark. While being proactively positive won’t determine whether or not you’re in that 50 percent, it will at least make things seem a bit brighter as you undergo treatment.

7. Give (and receive) lots of hug.

Many cancer patients find that the disease opens their hearts – and arms. There’s nothing like a big, solid hug when you’ve just heard the details of your upcoming surgery; or read the results of your pathology report.

You may think that moments of physical closeness with semi-strangers isn’t your thing. But you’ll soon develop a special bond with waiting-room friends, most of whom are sharing your experience. And hugs will become a regular part of your treatment.

8. See if your hospital has a “cancer buddy” program.

Some hospitals and cancer centers offer a “buddy” or “friend” program that pairs new cancer patients with cancer survivors sharing a similar diagnosis. New cancer patients have the advantage of a “veteran” showing them the ropes: everything from sharing what the aftermath of surgery might feel like, to pointing out the best parking spots, and where free coffee and snacks in the radiation area are located.

9. Find a patient navigator.

Patient navigators (or nurse navigators) are available at many hospitals and cancer centers these days. Well-versed in the entire cancer experience, these trained professionals literally help you navigate your lung cancer journey: medically, legally, and financially.

Navigators will help you make treatment decisions, and deal with insurance paperwork. They’ll make sure your doctor’s appointments aren’t scheduled too close together – or too far apart, if you come from a distance. In short, patient navigators take your hand and lead you through our bewildering, frustrating American health-care system, one that’s difficult enough to understand when you’re feeling well, more challenging still when you’re scared and sick.

10. Exercise.

Except on occasions when your doctor advises against it, exercise is always a good idea. Clearly you won’t be running a marathon anytime soon. But even simple things like walking up stairs or strolling around the garden are better than sitting on the couch or lying in bed for hours at a time.

Take a walk. Not only will the physical movement help your body; the sunshine, fresh air, and realization that life goes on – even when you have cancer – will do your soul a world of good.

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.