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Coping With Cancer

How Do I Handle This Cancer Part 5

*October 2020* by Tess Taft, msw, licsw ©all rights reserved

This is the fifth part of a seven-part series on how people cope with cancer. The first installment discussed GRIEF, DEPRESSION, and ANXIETY. The second installment included thoughts on ANGER.The third installment spoke to people who manage their feelings by WITHDRAWAL and RESIGNATION. The fourth part addressed how people handle cancer by DENIAL and SEEKING INFORMATION. This time we’ll address coping with DISTRACTION and RIGID CONTROL. Finally,  we’ll look at SEEKING SPIRITUAL ANSWERS, ACCEPTANCE, AND PEACE.

“I am exhausting myself, but I’m going through closets, clearing out drawers, I’m even going through all the family photos, getting them organized. They keep me from thinking about all this shit. Sometimes I go drive in the city so I don’t think about it.”


“I don’t know what I’d do without my pot. I just float away. It’s so nice. But then I wake up in the morning, and here I go again, ruminating non-stop. I don’t let myself smoke weed until 5pm.”


“If my pain gets under control, will I go crazy?”


“I got a bad test result and my husband took another job outside the house. He’s hardly here. He can’t stand talking about it. I get lonely, but I call my friends.”

Distraction is a double-edged sword. There is healthy distraction which helps us stay sane, and distraction that can hurt ourselves and others. Healthy distraction can include anything from listening to a tape in the dentist office to take our mind away from the pain or the sound of the drill, or using a mantra while we meditate to distract ourselves from intruding thoughts. Many use distraction as a pacing tool, much like denial. This is why racks of magazines fill medical waiting rooms, or why some of us read novels before we go to sleep –to distract ourselves from troublesome thoughts that might keep us awake. In the cancer world, people learn skillful ways to distract themselves while a vein or a port is being accessed for chemo. I also hear them talking about gardening for hours, or reading long series of mysteries or novels.

Distraction becomes a problem when it is used to avoid necessary conversation or connection. As a tool used in the cancer world, it can prevent people from hearing distressing but important information  as though they, in effect, have their hands over their ears saying “la la la la la” with their eyes closed while medical staff is speaking to them. This can add to confusion and feelings of helplessness and conflict with loved ones who want to know what happened at the clinic after the visit. When used in conversation it can come across as belittling or dismissive. People with cancer or their caregivers who use alcohol or drugs to mask their fears present a deeper problem which can interfere with treatment for the cancer itself and require professional addiction treatment, which might be refused. Such troubled people can end up institutionalized by families who can no longer care for them.

In my work, I note people using distraction in ways that seem  unhealthy, and I tread very gently, much the way I do with someone who is in denial. I don’t want to tramp on a pacing tool for people who aren’t comfortable hearing all the news at once. I encourage these folks to bring someone trusted to appointments so that four ears are listening and notes can be taken or the visit recorded. I also encourage the trusted partner or friend to ask the person in treatment for permission before they volunteer information they’ve heard outside the clinic, and to let the person know “If you have questions about what we heard, just ask me.”  Read more.