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11 Self-Talk Tips for Cancer Patients

When you first get your diagnosis, you’ll probably be flooded with emotions. In ‘When Tumor Is the Rumor and Cancer Is the Answer,’ Kevin P. Ryan, MD, FACP, shares how to gain some control over the thoughts driving those feelings.


Reject self-pity

Get past the “why me?” feelings, and don’t beat yourself up if you can come up with an answer to that question. Regardless of any lifestyle habits that could have contributed to your cancer, you have to face your diagnosis. Let out your initial instincts to withdraw, cry, and feel terrified—but only temporarily. Hard as it may be to feel any sort of graciousness for cancer, be thankful that technology allows earlier detection and better treatment than ever. “None of us gets out of this [life] alive, and the mere diagnosis is not synonymous with a death sentence,” writes Dr. Ryan. Don’t miss these reassuring things scientists wish you knew about cancer.


Appreciate beauty

“It is time to talk of laughter and beauty—and not in spite of how ugly things seem right now, but because of it,” writes Dr. Ryan. “I urge you to simply open your eyes at all we have taken for granted.” Turn on a nature documentary and draw yourself in to the beauty of vast oceans, vibrant grass, and majestic trees. Watch how ants and other animals have amazing communication systems, and consider how incredible it is that humans have even more complex systems. Check out these things cancer doctors do to avoid cancer.


Start with baby steps

When you’re newly diagnosed, things will be harder than they used to be, and that’s OK. Don’t force yourself to do anything your body isn’t ready for, but don’t resign yourself to staying in bed all day either. “It may be emotionally agonizing for you to just leave the house. Fine, then open the door and at least put a foot out there,” writes Dr. Ryan. Rent a trombone, sign up for a gardening class, or act goofy while wig shopping. Make an adventure of taking baby steps, and pretty soon you won’t feel like a newborn in the cancer world anymore. Click here to read what cancer patients wish you knew.


Affirm yourself

The mere fact that your heart is beating is proof that you’re alive and life is continuing. With that in mind, proceed with an optimistic attitude. Journal about your feelings, then see what happens when you start consciously thinking good thoughts before writing. The words on the page will prove how positive thinking can change your mindset. “Your survival depends on a positive attitude,” writes Dr. Ryan. Affirm to yourself and your loved ones that you’ll keep fighting.


Find good company

One major stressor can be people who just plain bum you out, like those who pity themselves, won’t pitch in with chores, or bring out your negativity. “Beware people who say they know how you feel,” writes Dr. Ryan. “Do they? Have they gone through it? Good—if their attitude is positive.” Surround yourself with people who lift your spirits, or take some time to be alone if you need to. You’ll get perspective on what really matters without day-to-day distractions that feel more pressing than they are. Check out these little ways to support a loved one through chemo.


Notice the small things

Practice mindfulness, taking in the sounds at a park or the feeling of the floor under your feet. Develop an appreciation for the little things, like kitchen gadgets that would have seemed wildly futuristic a century ago, or the evolutionary wonder of birds in flight. “Grasp the visceral essence of existence by the throat and hang on for the ride of your life,” writes Dr. Ryan. Let your childlike wonder cut loose at a children’s science museum or an amusement park.

iStock/Jacob Wackerhausen

Honor your thoughts

No matter how optimistic you are, negativity is going to creep in. “You will have dark thoughts,” writes Dr. Ryan. “They are to be honored no less than the light and bright ones in terms of their presence being part of the process and your right to experience them.” Give yourself permission to cry and punch a pillow, but also recognize how your thoughts drive your emotions. Fueling your more positive thoughts will help you handle cancer with a better attitude. These are the best foods to eat during chemotherapy.


Know your emotions aren’t reality

Negative thoughts will foster hopelessness, fear, and isolation, but you can fight against those emotions. Acknowledge that the feelings are real, but they’re not reality. For instance, feeling lonely doesn’t mean you don’t have support, and experiencing panic doesn’t mean the end is near. Actively work to find the more hopeful reality behind those negative thoughts. Start with these tricks for stopping negative self talk.


Set goals for yourself

The mere act of setting goals will empower you and inspire you to push the limits you thought you had. “Goals motivate us to press on for the prize, and my friends, it is the passion of the pursuit that is the real prize, not the attained goal,” writes Dr. Ryan. Challenge yourself to get to the car without a wheelchair or climb Mount Everest. Mustering the will to keep going is more important than your objective itself. Read these “dream big” quotes for inspiration.


Sign up for a support group

Maybe you’re afraid of opening up or don’t think anyone will really be able to understand you, but emotional support can take a weight off. “As humans do, we hide and frequently suffer privately,” writes Dr. Ryan. Cue support groups. Attending one will help you celebrate life, prepare for the future, and vent your emotions. In a community of other cancer survivors, you’ll be able to release some of your own burden while providing the gift of consolation and insight to others going through similar experiences. These are some of the worst things to say to a cancer survivor.


Offer forgiveness

Oddly enough, a cancer diagnosis can actually foster forgiveness. Use it as a driving reason to improve your relationships, whether that means forgiving a family member who’s hurt you or renewing your appreciation for your partner. Show endless gratitude to those helping you through the process, and you’ll probably feel your own attitude change for the better too. Check out these science-based facts about forgiveness.

Want more support?

Kevin P. Ryan, MD, FACP, is a clinical full professor at UC Davis School of Medicine. “In a sense, patients fighting the diagnosis have been both burdened and blessed on a spiritual plane with fighting the good and noble fight, striving until the prize is won and the race is done, continuing until weary,” he writes. Pick up his book When Tumor Is the Rumor and Cancer Is the Answer: A Comprehensive Text for Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patients and Their Families to learn more about how to deal with a life-changing cancer diagnosis.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.

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