Cancer in the time of COVID-19: Checking your emotions

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Pandemics have an emotional impact on society and individuals alike. Whether through personal experience, news coverage or talking with others, we know how COVID-19 has affected our lives. The death toll, financial hardship, job loss, anxiety and isolation have become a daily thread of conversation and experience.

Avoiding exposure to the coronavirus is especially critical to cancer patients who may have an increased risk for infection related to their treatment. Cancer patients may have more fears of being exposed, and this can have a negative effect on their emotional health.

Just as everyone does not show physical symptoms of the virus, everyone tolerates and copes with feelings surrounding the pandemic differently.

Social connection is known to be crucial to human well-being and survival. Social distancing and avoiding social events is important to keeping down the spread of the coronavirus. It is important to check on our own emotional health and ability to cope with the isolation and loneliness that can occur along with those positive health measures.

Here are a few ways to check in with our pandemic crisis emotions:

  • Remember it’s OK to talk about your feelings. Feeling OK and not so good are both normal. Allow your feelings as they are.
  • Take two minutes to acknowledge your feelings. Write them down and compare your feelings over time. If you feel stuck in negative emotions, seek professional help.
  • If you have trouble concentrating, sleeping, worry continuously or feel detached from family and friends, talk with someone about your feelings and seek professional help.
  • Patients of Norton Cancer Institute can discuss behavioral health with their oncologist. Contact your patient navigator for help getting an appointment.
  • Online support groups and counseling are available.

Tips for self-care

When you feel worried: Take three slow deep breaths. Reposition by standing up and shaking your entire body — hands, shoulders, arms, hips and thighs. Say aloud, “I am letting go.” Repeat a few times.

When you take off your face mask: Wash your hands then gently massage using your thumb knuckles up and down alongside your nose. Then use your fingertips. Next rub circles lightly around your eyes using fingertips. Increase the area to reach your eyebrows. Use thumbs to press firmly between eyebrows for a few seconds.

When you feel lonely for a hug: Settle into a comfortable seat and wrap yourself in a cozy wrap or blanket. Make a nest with pillows and settle back. This is a good time to spend with your pets or reach out to a friend.

When you feel frustrated: Identify a trusted buddy in your family or a close friend. Ask them if you can vent to them about your feelings. Let them know that they can help you by actively listening to your feelings. The person should not offer advice, try to fix your feelings or provide suggestions or solutions. Set a timer for the agreed-on “vent session” — five minutes may be enough, and stop at that point. Then set the timer for your buddy if they want to give it a try.

To be an active listener: Suspend judgment, avoid distractions and don’t interrupt. Rephrase the speaker’s words back to him or her as a question. (“You seem to feel angry, is that because … ?”).

Loneliness is not specific to these times. We all feel in need of human contact. Be sure to reach out and touch those around you — even if it is from 6 feet away.

Karen Allen, BSN, R.N., OCN, is an oncology patient navigator at Norton Cancer Institute.