I practice in a clinic that focuses on supporting cancer patients and their families. We don’t provide treatment for the disease directly. By this I mean we don’t administer chemotherapy or radiation, nor do we perform surgery on tumors. Instead we treat how people are feeling either as a result of their condition or the unwanted effects of the therapies they receive. Our expertise lies in alleviating pain, nausea, shortness of breath, and other distressing symptoms. One aspect of cancer that goes either untended, or under-treated, is mood. This can be patient’s emotions or those of a spouse, the children, or other loved ones. Mood is pervasive in a household. How someone copes with cancer, how they frame what they are experiencing, has an impact on the patient and those they love.

Nothing emphasizes our lack of attention to mood like a recent study published in the prestigious medical journal Cancer. Researchers looked at hundreds of patients with a variety of cancers to understand their perspective on their quality of life, their experience as they journey through their treatment. They then dug deeper to look at how mood and coping mechanisms generate the quality scores reported by the patients.

What they found is alarming. More than half of the patients used negative coping mechanisms (NCM) when thinking about their condition. Examples of NCMs are denial and blame. When denial is at play people tend to not believe they have a serious condition or disbelieve how serious it might be. Denial has been linked to delays in seeking care, developing anxiety, and increased family conflict. Blame is when someone focuses on their role in creating the situation they find themselves in. It is linked with depression, anger, and isolation. These, along with other NCMs, produce situations in medical care, social or family interactions, and even personal finances that hinder people from achieving the best care possible. It is no surprise then that the people displaying NCM had high rates of depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders.

These NCMs don’t need to be the norm. People don’t want to feel this way. Importantly, they don’t need to. There are an equal number of positive coping mechanisms (PCM). I watch patients and families on a daily basis show everyone that they are more than their illness. Cancer doesn’t rule them. They retain control. They inspire those around them. They do so by employing PCMs.

An example of a PCM is acceptance. This does not mean that someone rolls over and allows themselves to be steamrolled by cancer. Instead it gets the patient and family into a “take action” mode. Denial holds us back. Acceptance puts us on the runway and launches us towards staying in control, planning rather than reacting, and brings people together on shared goals. When we deal with problems, challenges, and barriers in a head-on fashion, the results are better. Healthcare is no different. Indeed, the stakes are rarely as high.

At Iris Plans we work with people experiencing cancer and their loved ones through health care planning. Included in these sessions are tips and techniques that assist people in creating resilience and finding ways to live better regardless of your situation. Our expertise, born from our clinical experience and the thousands of scientific studies completed in this area, will help you practice positive coping mechanisms. The benefits are significant and don’t stop with you, there is a ripple effect on those you care about. When is the best time to start health care planning when facing cancer? The answer is the same every time I’m asked. Now.