(HealthDay) – Could a cancer diagnosis sometimes make positive changes in life? In a new study, many people with colon cancer, even at advanced stages, believed that their diagnosis had some positive impact on their lives.
In surveys of 133 colon cancer patients, the researchers found that nearly all – 95% – said their life had benefited in some way since they were diagnosed. Often times, they felt that their family relationships had strengthened, or they were better able to “take things as they come” and feel grateful for each day.
It did whether people were in an earlier stage of the disease or had metastatic cancer – meaning it had spread to distant places in the body.
Indeed, the study appeared that no medical factors appeared to affect patients’ ability to “find benefit”.
On the other hand, this ability to see a “silver lining” has not saved people from feeling anxious, sad, or otherwise desperate.
While this may not seem intuitive, experts say it actually makes sense.
People can see the positives in their lives and worry about a cancer diagnosis at the same time, said lead researcher Lauren Zimmaro, a senior postdoctoral fellow at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.
Finding use, she said, is about finding meaning in the midst of trouble, not “making things positive.”
“It’s more realistic than that,” said Zimmaro.
Allison Applebaum, an assistant psychologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, made a similar point.
“We humans are complex, and it is normal to experience multiple, possibly conflicting emotions at the same time,” said Applebaum, who was not involved in the study.
“For many,” she said, “the experience of cancer – in any place or at any stage – leads to a reassessment of values, life goals and priorities.”
However, this process does not negate negative emotions. “You can certainly be very worried about the future or sad about the current illness and the associated restrictions and still be grateful,” said Applebaum.
The study, which was recently published online in the journal Supportive Care in Cancer, included 133 patients being treated in a hospital for colon cancer, half of whom had metastatic disease.
At the beginning and six months later, the patients filled out standard questionnaires on benefit finding and psychological distress.
The questions about finding benefits were more extensive and asked, for example, whether the diagnosis “made me accept things more”. The questions about need asked people how they were feeling right now.
The study found that almost all patients have had at least one benefit since they were diagnosed. And, on average, that belief increased during the six-month study.
However, there was no evidence that it protected from psychological distress.
This may be due in part to the fact that patients overall reported relatively low levels of stress. According to Dr. Marleen Meyers, founding director of the Cancer Survivorship Program at NYU Langone Health’s Perlmutter Cancer Center in New York City, has made it harder to see an effect.
But she also agreed that the silver lining from cancer would not necessarily protect people from the “existential stress” of diagnosis or the daily stress of trying to keep a job and pay the bills.
“Cancer stress is very real and ubiquitous,” said Meyers. “And while parts of the cancer experience can be mitigated through benefit-finding, it is understandable that the anger, fatigue, and helplessness … of being diagnosed with cancer can replace it.”
But even if finding usefulness doesn’t diminish those negative emotions, it is still positive in and of itself. And Applebaum said it can be promoted during cancer treatment.
Research at Sloan Kettering has shown that even brief interventions “can help patients with advanced, life-limiting cancers connect to purpose, find benefit, or experience post-traumatic growth.”
This does not mean that people with cancer should “feel” a certain way, the experts emphasized.
“It’s okay to feel desperate. It’s normal and natural,” said Zimmaro. “It’s okay to feel that you’ve grown too.”
If the people want help for their need, they should get it, said Zimmaro.
Applebaum said most cancer centers – including smaller community centers – have some type of mental health care. There are also community resources such as American Cancer Society services.
One silver lining in the pandemic, Applebaum said, is that telemedicine has actually made mental health services more accessible to many cancer patients. In the past, time, travel, and face-to-face meeting costs were barriers, she noted.
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