Advice from CancerCare Social Workers on Coping With Cervical Cancer
In recognition of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, CancerCare oncology social workers, Lauren Chatalian, LCSW, Director of Advocacy, and Sam Fortune, LMSW, Women’s Cancers Program Coordinator, share advice for individuals and their loved ones on coping with cervical cancer.
What advice would you give to someone who has been newly diagnosed with cervical cancer?
Being diagnosed with cervical cancer can elicit many emotions – from shock and disbelief to feeling overwhelmed. First, you are not alone – there is support available and a team that you will be working with to determine next steps. Be gentle with yourself in processing the news and hold on to the people, hobbies and self-care techniques that lift you up. There are also ways to connect with others to hear how they are coping with this diagnosis. Prepare questions for your appointments, including gathering more information about your specific diagnosis as well as what treatment options are available. Having open communication with your medical team is important as is determining who you can contact if you have any additional questions.
What are some of the unique challenges people with cervical cancer might face?
Unfortunately, symptoms of cervical cancer may overlap with other diagnoses, so it is important to have regular screenings, including human papillomavirus (HPV) and Pap tests, as part of one’s overall health. Treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and targeted therapy. Before beginning treatment, you can speak to your medical team about how it may impact you. As treatments may impact fertility, a conversation about fertility preservation and family planning is important to have. Cervical cancer can also impact intimacy and how individuals feel about themselves as they may experience body changes.
How can people with cervical cancer manage the day-to-day side effects of treatment?
You can speak to your medical team about potential side effects that you may experience so they can provide suggestions in managing these. There are options available that could help relieve side effects such as integrative therapies or pain management programs. There may be programs available through the treatment center including a dietician or nutritionist. Connecting with others and learning how they cope with the side effects from day to day can be very beneficial as well. Support groups can offer a space to connect with others who share similar concerns and experiences, such as CancerCare’s Women’s Cancers Support Group or Gynecologic Cancers Online Patient Support Group. It can be helpful to identify supports including individualized support as well as your personal support network. Speaking to loved ones and explaining what may be helpful for you can provide some relief as well. It’s OK to ask for help and determine your loved ones’ roles within your care. Also, for any financial concerns that arise, there may be financial assistance options available to you.
Why is it important to communicate with one’s health care team during and after treatment?
It is important to communicate with one’s health care team during and after treatment to keep them informed of how you are feeling overall. Keeping a symptom and side effect log or journal can be helpful to bring in for appointments. Your health care team is there to support you throughout treatment and will help to determine follow-up care after treatment. As you continue to update your health care team, they will help to determine if any adjustments need to be made and offer any suggestions regarding managing possible side effects. As everyone is unique, they will be able to provide guidance on what may work best for you.
What advice would you offer to people with cervical cancer who are concerned about issues of fertility or sexual intimacy?
In addition to speaking with your medical team, we encourage you to have open conversations with your loved ones about side effects. Do not be afraid to ask questions and express any concerns you may have. It may be helpful to seek additional emotional support for fertility concerns in efforts to cope with any feelings of loss or obstacles you may experience Give yourself time to learn and adjust to the changes with your body. Patience and kindness towards yourself will also be critical as you navigate through this. Practice self-love with your body and positive affirmations. The use of physical touch can also assist with body acceptance.
Some individuals may feel a stigma, or discomfort discussing, gynecological (GYN) cancers, including cervical cancer. How would you advise them?
It is not unusual for some people to feel discomfort discussing a GYN cancer. However, we want to emphasize that there is nothing to feel embarrassed about, as many people suffer physical challenges from any type of cancer. If we do not talk about it, those diagnosed will have more difficulty coping with their diagnosis or obtaining access to the appropriate information needed to make informed decisions. The more we can normalize discussions about GYN cancers, the more access those diagnosed with cervical cancer will have to the proper support.
How can family and friends support their loved ones who have cervical cancer?
Many family members may feel uncertainty as to how to best support their loved ones’ after their diagnosis. We encourage those diagnosed with cervical cancer to identify their needs and outline such needs to their loved ones in order to receive their needed support. Loved ones can educate themselves on cervical cancer’s side effects, as well as provide a space for those diagnosed with cervical cancer to speak freely about their feelings. Do not worry about “saying the right thing.” Listening goes a long way.
What other sources of support would you recommend to those diagnosed with or recovering from cervical cancer, as well as those who would like to support their loved ones with their diagnosis?
Self-care, support groups, individual counseling and listening to workshops and other podcasts to get more information can reduce feelings of loneliness or confusion and provide those diagnosed with helpful information and guidance as they navigate through this stressful time. Do not be afraid to ask for help, as there are so many services to assist. Many cancer centers have a social worker or patient navigator on staff who can provide additional assistance. Call CancerCare’s Hopeline at 800-813-HOPE (4673) to speak to one of our oncology social workers for additional support or visit our Cervical Cancer resource page to get more information, including our upcoming Connect Education Workshop on Cervical Cancer: Treatment Advances on February 15, 2023.