Coping with Uncertainty

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

DECEMBER 14, 2023

When living with cancer, being able to tolerate uncertainty is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. While you probably experience some uncertainty on a day-to-day basis—such as not knowing what traffic will be like or being unable to predict how your child will do on a test—the stakes feel understandably higher when it surrounds a cancer diagnosis.  

Staying in the present moment is a great way to combat uncertainty. It’s more effective to think about how you’re going to manage the next cycle of chemotherapy than worrying about what might happen if the chemotherapy doesn’t work. Gathering information, asking questions, and giving yourself space to feel everything that comes up can prevent you from jumping to what ifs.

Other techniques to help you cope with uncertainty include:

  • Taking action over things you can control
  • Focusing on gratitude for what you have 
  • Practicing mindfulness 
  • Developing regular habits and routine 
  • Looking for opportunities in the difficulties 
  • Seeking out humor
  • Challenging your need for certainty 
  • Naming your uncertainty when it arises 
  • Looking at the evidence in front of you 
  • Making peace with the idea that there’s much you can’t control  

Before asking the hardest questions, remember that, while doctors are armed with statistics and prior experience, they’re unable to promise you certainty either. Asking open-ended questions helps. For example, those battling late-stage cancer might avoid asking how long they have to live and instead ask what the best possible outcome for someone in their position could be. The first question can’t be answered concretely, but the latter proposes a broad range of possibilities that offer hope.  

Though it may be a difficult journey to go from needing certainty to becoming comfortable without it, the peace it will bring you is worth the effort. 

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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