It is during difficult times that one can find how resilient one can be

How COVID-19 impacts the lives of cancer patients

Resiliency is the ability to bounce back from adversity or a traumatic event. People diagnosed with cancer face a multitude of challenges where their resiliency is tested. One of the greatest challenges for people living with cancer is coping with uncertainty. Will the treatment(s) work? Will my husband and children be OK? Will I ever be able to return to work? How will this affect my family financially? For many people living with cancer, they eventually learn how to manage this uncertainty through support from their medical team, their family, friends and through maintaining hope.

Then came COVID-19!

Since March 2020, we all have been glued to our television sets watching the number of infected people rise, while others succumbed to the virus. No one could have predicted how our lives were about to change and how the world would go on lockdown. The costs of COVID-19 economically, physically, socially and mentally are said to be immeasurable. In an effort to limit the spread of the virus, many of the medical appointments in Quebec are now offered via tele-health. At the MUHC’s Psychosocial Oncology (PSO) program, psychological support to oncology patients is currently offered remotely either by telephone or ZOOM. In these sessions, patients share the impact of COVID-19 on their lives.

Anxiety can increase in the wake of COVID-19

Anxiety is a common response in persons living with cancer. It is manifested by worry, fears, insomnia, and physical symptoms (i.e., tension). Estimates for anxiety in patients living with cancer range from 25% to as high as 50% in those recently diagnosed. It is not surprising that this anxiety might increase in the wake of COVID-19. For instance, to secure everyone’s safety, some changes needed to be adopted in the provision of medical care. As an example, some medical appointments with one’s doctor are delivered via telephone or ZOOM. Many family members could not accompany a patient to their treatment or visit when admitted. Such changes might have caused some anxiety in patients. Anxiety can also lead to depressive symptoms (i.e., intense sadness) when one experiences helplessness and some loss of control.

How COVID-19 has added onto the realm of uncertainty for persons with cancer

COVID-19 has also led many to experience social isolation, both physical and emotional. While social interactions occur online, there is something to be said about physical contact that words simply cannot replace. If there is one lesson we have learned with COVID-19, it is how much we depend on physical touch and how it is missed when it is absent and discouraged. While some patients with cancer report social isolation, others experience overcrowded living conditions. Parents with cancer in a house with bored children can make it a challenge to recuperate from treatments. Furthermore, many families, including those of patients with cancer have been affected financially by COVID-19 adding more stress. Other challenges brought on by COVID-19 are the uncertainty of how long a vaccine will be developed that could free us from this new reality. A best-case scenario would be to have a vaccine in 2020. However it could be much longer. For people with cancer, time is most precious. Many patients have shared how they would rather be spending their valued time other than in confinement. COVID-19 has indeed added onto the realm of uncertainty for persons with cancer.

Resiliency in these difficult times

In spite of all these and other challenges, persons with cancer show great resiliency in these difficult times. People have searched in their toolboxes, some creatively so, to come up with ways of coping amidst COVID-19. For example, many people have joined online classes in their community. Others have taken this opportunity to tackle new projects at home, learn a new hobby and find creative ways to keep connected with their family and friends (many via Skype or ZOOM). 

How to cope?

The following tips might be helpful to facilitate coping during the COVID-19 crisis:

  1. Join an on-line Support Group, for example :
  2. Stay connected with loved ones
  3. Learn a new skill or hobby
  4. Keep up with your medical appointments
  5. Remain as active as you can.
  6. Eat and rest properly
  7. Practice mindfulness (i.e., focusing on the present moment) and self- compassion (i.e., self-kindness) for example :
  8. Live your life based on what is important to you and who you strive to be
  9. Keep a gratitude journal
  10. Seek professional support if your fears, anxieties or sadness are more present
  11. Find humour as much as possible

It is often during a crisis such as COVID-19 that one can be challenged. It is also during difficult times that one can find how resilient one can be.

Our special thanks to Marc Hamel Ph.D. & Julian Chiarella, Psychology Intern (Ph.D. candidate) from the Psychosocial Oncology Services, McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) for their extraordinary collaboration.

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