4 Ways Cancer Survivors Can Cope with Anxiety About COVID-19

If you are a cancer survivor who is struggling with your feelings about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, you’re not alone. Many survivors are experiencing increased stress and anxiety right now. And with good reason—people who have had treatment for cancer may be at greater risk of illness from infections, including COVID-19, because their immune systems can be weakened by cancer and its treatments.

“These are people who have already dealt with a lot of health stressors to begin with, and now we are adding a global pandemic on top of that,” says UNC Health psychologist Justin Yopp, PhD.

Although increased anxiety and fear are normal, here are four ways you can manage your stress and anxiety so you can stay safe and healthy—physically and mentally.

1. Try to focus on things other than the pandemic.

It’s easy to think about the pandemic all the time, but it’s best for your health to find other things to occupy your mind and energy.

“What has been helpful for most people is to find a balance between being concerned and vigilant about the pandemic and also at the same time not letting it consume your thoughts,” Dr. Yopp says.

To help with this, avoid spending too much time watching and reading the news or checking social media. “Doing so can make it feel like it’s everywhere and make it more outsized,” Dr. Yopp says.

Check in with a trusted news source once a day to help you make informed decisions, then find something else to do, whether it’s working, exercising, cleaning or relaxing with a distracting book or TV show.

2. Draw on the strength you needed during cancer treatment.

There are similarities between a cancer experience and living through a pandemic. For most people diagnosed with cancer, it’s a shock that feels like it came out of nowhere. Then there’s a significant adjustment phase when you have to reorganize your life to adapt to your diagnosis and treatment but you just want to get back to normal, Dr. Yopp says.

“In reality, you don’t go back to anything. You move forward to a new normal,” Dr. Yopp says.

The pandemic—much like cancer—came out of the blue and upended our lives. All we want is to get back to normal, but we don’t know when that will happen or what our new normal will be.

“Having to tolerate some of that uncertainty and ambiguity is a consistent theme when going through cancer treatment,” Dr. Yopp says. “And we’re all discovering it’s a pretty common theme in dealing with this pandemic.”

Although it was difficult, you made it through your diagnosis and treatment, so remember you can make it through the pandemic, too.

3. Focus on what you can control.

Although you cannot control the spread of the virus, you can control your decision-making to help avoid contracting it.

“You are not helpless, and there are things you can do to help yourself stay safe,” Dr. Yopp says.

Here are some steps you can take to make it less likely that you’ll catch the virus:

4. Maintain a social life.

Find ways to safely stay connected with others.

“It’s not going to do anyone any good in terms of their mental health to be sheltered in a bubble for the next year,” Dr. Yopp says. “So find that sweet spot between being vigilant and protecting yourself but not becoming so socially isolated that it becomes a detriment.”

For example, you can visit with loved ones through technology and virtual meetups, talk to your neighbors across your driveway or have a few friends set up 6 feet apart in your backyard.

“There are ways to counterbalance social isolation that do not flout the rules,” Dr. Yopp says. “Each person’s comfort level with what they are willing to accept as far as that risk is an individual decision, but unless you are extremely immunocompromised, think about having outdoor visits where you are socially distanced and not around people who you know are sick.”

If you’re concerned about your health during the COVID-19 pandemic, talk to your doctor. For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.