Patient Care

Cancer, COVID and a Loss of Control: Advice for Coping

May. 8, 2020

You have cancer.

For many, hearing those words represents feeling a total loss of control. Some lose control of their schedules because of appointments or job loss due to treatment. Most experience some kind of loss of control physically – perhaps your hair, your appetite or your energy. Life as you knew it seems completely changed.

The COVID-19 pandemic is giving all of us a glimpse of what a cancer diagnosis can feel like when the disease steals control.

Although some aspects of society in New York state are working to reopen, it will take a while for masks to come off, for grocery store visits to feel uneventful, for the economy to rebound, for our lives to return to “normal.” In the meantime, learning healthy ways of coping with the loss of control will help all of us adjust to our new realities.

Jennifer Richman, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Judy Zeeman-Golden, LCSW, director of Wilmot’s Pluta Integrative Oncology & Wellness Center, offer tips that can help all of us — whether cancer is part of your life or not.   

“There’s no one right answer to how you should cope,” said Richman, who runs Wilmot’s Psycho-Social Oncology Program. “Everyone has their own ways of coping.”


Healthy distraction helps with loss of control.

We can use productive distraction to help with coping. Working on a task or hobby that makes you happy can keep you busy and also help you feel more in control. Examples could include exercise, art, puzzles, reading, home improvements or art.

“Anything where you are not left alone in your thoughts, that’s the distraction we’re talking about,” Richman said.


Focusing on what we can control – no matter how small – can make a difference.

We can all control how we take care of ourselves. Eating healthy food, giving up harmful habits like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption, finding creative ways to get physical activity and engaging in relaxing activities throughout the week can help reduce stress levels and promote well-being. 

For Wilmot Cancer Institute patients and families, the Pluta Integrative and Oncology Wellness Center provides many free services. While in-person classes and programming are cancelled indefinitely, the center offers Zoom classes for cancer patients and a YouTube playlist with tai chi, yoga, acupressure and nutrition videos, available to all. 

Zeeman-Golden, the program manager of the center, says these practices can be especially important to cancer patients who are struggling with uncertainty.  

“Cancer is a huge loss of control, and integrative therapies are mostly things that people feel they have control over,” Zeeman-Golden said. “When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it’s nice to feel that there are parts of their life that they can control.”

You can also control social interactions, even if they take a virtual format. Getting in touch with family, friends and other cancer survivors can help to keep things in perspective. Cancer is often a “family diagnosis,” leaving loved ones feeling a loss of control, too, Richman said.


Don’t shy away from your feelings. Acknowledge them.

Especially in these times, we all have emotional challenges  – ranging from anger at cancelled celebrations and job or financial disruption to appreciation for unexpected family time.

“It’s okay to have emotions as long as it’s not affecting your ability to do things like work, have fun, get your treatments,” Richman said.


Asking for professional help is crucial.

If things feel like they are too much, don’t hesitate to talk to someone outside your circle. A number of mental and emotional health resources are available for cancer patients and the general public. It’s important to remember, there’s nothing wrong with therapy. Sometimes, a therapist can provide a new perspective that’s life-changing. 

“A therapist is someone who can open your mind to a different way of thinking,” Richman says.

Other places where you can find mental health help include:

  • Your primary care physician or oncology team
  • Your employer – many employers offer some kind of Employee Assistance Program
  • New York State’s Emotional Support Line: 1-844-863-9314 You can also find online resources from New York’s Office of Mental Health here.
  • URMC’s EAP Blog: While this is geared toward URMC employees, the content could benefit anyone seeking information related to mental health.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • New York State Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-942-6906