A cancer diagnosis can force patients to confront their own mortality and bring up such feelings as fear, anger, sadness, and helplessness. Akash Shah, MD, a clinical instructor in the Department of Medicine and member of the Supportive Oncology Program at NYU Langone Health’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, recently spoke at a cancer center webinar, presenting collaboratively with SHARE Cancer Support. The webinar aims to help people with cancer explore how to acknowledge the inevitable while still allowing themselves to live a full life and experience hope.
“Mortality is something we find ourselves grappling with constantly. The tough part, then, is finding some sort of meaning in that, some sort of acceptance,” Dr. Shah says. “We’re all going through something difficult, but how do we cope with something like a cancer diagnosis?”
Common emotional responses to serious illness include anger or frustration, worry about the future, grief over the loss of health, denial, and isolation.
“I can’t stress this enough, there is no one way to correctly deal with a cancer diagnosis,” Dr. Shah says. “It’s really just a matter of getting as much information as you can and trying to keep a good attitude. If you allow yourself to feel what you feel, you’ll find that even the intense, disturbing, bad news often will pass.”
Dr. Shah discusses palliative care as an option for patients. Physicians in the Supportive Oncology Program use an interdisciplinary team model, including chaplains and social workers as well as doctors and nurse practitioners to treat the spiritual, emotional, physical, or existential pain that accompanies a cancer diagnosis.
“Palliative care is another layer of support,” Dr. Shah says. “We are mostly here to listen, and unlike most oncologists or primary care doctors, we have more time to spend with you.”
Dr. Shah highlights some ways that his patients found to cope with their mortality. One patient started doing stand-up comedy after his diagnosis. Another with end-stage lymphoma is writing a memoir on living with this illness. A patient with lung cancer attempted to see as many Broadway shows as he could.
“In the end, having a positive attitude and finding meaning or purpose are the two things that I have found that give people the greatest chance at coping with the fear, anger, sadness, and helplessness that often come hand in hand with a cancer diagnosis,” Dr. Shah says.
Watch the complete Living with Mortality and Finding Meaning webinar.