Cancer and emotional bank accounts

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

JULY 15, 2019

Man Napping with BookI I've written before about my theory of an emotional bank account. We are all familiar with the financial accounts at our banks, but we don't often consider this one. Especially going through cancer treatment, you are required to make frequent withdrawals of energy and pleasure (or lack thereof), and it is difficult to make compensatory deposits. When you are focused on just getting through the next treatment or the next day, it is pretty tough to attend carefully to your overall emotional well-being.

Let's consider the withdrawals that are the equivalent of regular, necessary bills, similar to your monthly mortgage or rent check. You have to show up for treatment and go through the experience of surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. Then there are side effects including fatigue, nausea, or a general sense of malaise. Your many medical appointments may leave you feeling as though the hospital or treatment center is a second home. On top of all this, you have to try to keep up with your normal home and professional obligations, which can tap out your reserves.

Once active treatment has been completed, your family and friends may expect you to very quickly feel like your old self. The rule of thumb, however, is that it takes at least as long as the total duration of treatment to feel fully physically and emotionally recovered. That means months.

We know that, during and after treatment, we have to attend to our physical needs. This means getting enough rest, naps if you like them, food that pleases you, and regular, mild to moderate exercise. The emotional side of your bank account can be trickier to monitor. You are sure to have moments of stress: awaiting news of a scan, learning that a cancer buddy has died, or having a difficult talk with your doctor. Even harder can be those moments that surprise you: wondering whether a particular holiday may be your last, reacting to an insensitive remark from someone, or weathering the intense feelings associated with any important event like a graduation, big birthday, or wedding.

It is important to identify ways to make physical and emotional deposits so this account maintains a robust balance. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  1. Naps and earlier bedtimes.
  2. Sleeping in when possible.
  3. Splurging on a new quilt or high-quality bed linens.
  4. Continuing with regular mild exercise, which has been demonstrated to improve a sense of well-being.
  5. Allowing yourself comfort foods and periodic treats with less than your usual standards of high nutritional value.
  6. Going out for some meals with friends. If dinner feels daunting, try breakfast or lunch.
  7. Chatting with a friend every single day, even if it is a brief conversation.
  8. Allowing yourself to binge watch a good television series on a gray day.
  9. Getting out to a movie; the experience of being in a theater is different than watching at home.
  10. Reading whatever delights you. Always have a good book going.
  11. Spending as much time outside in beautiful places as you can.
  12. Yoga or meditation.
  13. Reiki, therapeutic massage, or acupuncture.
  14. Attending religious services if this is your tradition.
  15. Playing—and this includes cards or word games or dress-up with small children.
  16. Listening to your favorite music.
  17. Laughing as often and as much as possible.
  18. Being gentle with yourself. Treat yourself at least as generously and kindly as you do others.
Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.