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Winning the Mental Fight Against Cancer

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There are dozens of self-help books that argue attitude is everything. Change your outlook, and you will change the world. That may seem like an oversimplification, but when it comes to fighting cancer, attitude plays a huge role in a patient’s potential to defeat the disease.

According to Hancock Health hematologist and medical oncologist Dr. Fadi Hayek, a patient’s attitude directly impacts how much medication they’re able to tolerate during treatment. And the more aggressive the treatment, the more likely the patient is to achieve a positive outcome.

“Someone who has all the enthusiasm can go through treatment and receive all the chemo he or she needs to get their success rate much higher,” Dr. Hayek said. “Eventually, the cancer responds better. So the attitude makes a huge difference.” Dr. Hayek said anxiety is the most common mental health issue many of his patients struggle with. “We see a lot of anxiety,” he said. “It can be quite severe, at least at the beginning stages. The patient’s mind is trying to play tricks, suggesting it’s going to end up being nothing. That denial actually creates a lot of anxiety.”

Fighting Anxiety with Mindfulness

Katherine Murray, a chaplain with Suburban Hospice, the hospice service for Hancock Regional Hospital, helps patients and families navigate grief. She underscored the importance of mindfulness and deep breathing exercises for patients struggling with anxiety around an illness. 

“Mindfulness is a great technique for people dealing with anxiety,” Murray said. “Just using all five senses to bring yourself into this present moment. It sounds so simple, but the human mind isn’t really wired to do that for very long. It’s hard to find a sense of peace and equilibrium when we’re not present, because those feelings are only available in the here and now.” 

How Family and Friends Can Help


“Family support is extremely important to the patient’s positive outlook,” Dr. Hayek said. He shared simple things family members can do to support the patient, such as offer to provide transportation or attend doctors’ appointments. But it’s just as important to be emotionally supportive.

“Just checking on a patient’s mental well-being every day can make a huge difference,” he said. “Make sure the patient sees that people care for them, that they’re thought of, and so on. Patients can find meaning through whatever support system they have that’s larger than the cancer.” 

Murray agreed when she recalled an important lesson she was taught at seminary that informs her hospice work to this day, “When we suffer, we do it in isolation,” she said. “But when a caring person comes alongside us, that suffering is reduced to pain, and that pain can be borne.”

Dr. Hayek’s suggestions for providing emotional support to a patient fighting cancer:

  • Be sensitive to their feelings and encourage them to talk to family members and friends about their emotions. 
  • Encourage your loved one to join one of the many support groups available through the Sue Ann Wortman Cancer Center. 
  • Help them stay active. Physical activity has been linked to lower rates of depression and anxiety. 

Breaking through the initial shock of diagnosis is critical to a successful fight against cancer. It’s important to remember that there is hope and help available. If you’re a patient going through cancer treatment and think you might be showing signs of a mental health condition, talk to your doctor about treatment options such as counseling, medication, and therapy. 

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