18 May 2021

Navigating cancer diagnosis and treatment

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 18 May 2021

Most people bump into emotions they've never come across before when cancer turns up in their world, says Australian clinical psychologist Dr Toni Lindsay.

After working with cancer patients and their families for over a decade, she's put some tips into a new book called The Cancer Companion: How to navigate your way from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.

Toni Lindsay

Toni Lindsay Photo: supplied by Exisle Publishing

Anxiety is, understandably, often heightened around the time of a cancer diagnosis and as treatment begins, Dr Lindsay says.

"That first cycle of treatment is often full of emotion and full of anxiety about what's going to happen… and that's the hardest cycle from a headspace perspective."

Difficult emotions can reappear when treatment changes and often at the end of treatment, too, she says.

People get into a routine with chemotherapy and can feel at feel loss without the routine and structure.

"People get used to living their lives on two or three weekly cycles… and coming to the end of that they need to almost re-adjust.

"That can be the time that people's brains start to make sense of the enormity of everything they've just been through. It's not uncommon at those points that people find themselves really struggling with all of this and what does all of this mean?"

Part of Dr Lindsay's job is to give people language for reckoning with an experience that feels foreign and strange.

"We walk around with a bit of an illusion that we're in control of what's happening to us. Then we bump into this thing which tells us that we're not."

Calling on the resilience people already have is key and Dr Lindsay does this by looking with them at what they've got through in the past and the coping skills they already have.

It's necessary to somehow make peace with the new level of uncertainty and not let it stop you from living your life, she says.

"I see you, [uncertainty]. I know that you're there. I know that you're going to keep turning up. I know why you're turning up, 'cause this is actually really scary. But I'm going to continue to do the things that are important to me and do the things that help me get through this."

For most people, cancer comes with an existential reckoning which requires that we not get ahead our ourselves.

"It's about on a day-to-day basis how do I stay present? All of the uncertainty, anxiety, 'what's going to happen to me?' lives in the future. So if you can stay really present [that's easier]."