It is possible to thrive even when living with the big C, Knutsford-based mental health expert Philippa Saunders says

We all know someone whose life cancer has touched, be it a family member, a friend or a colleague. People fear the worst when they hear the C-word, and diagnosis often turns a person’s world upside down. But once over the initial shock, there can be a significant difference in how people cope. Some people manage without any seeming effect on their mental health, while others struggle. Many people don’t consider that there is anything else other than ‘surviving’ when it comes to cancer, but it is possible to thrive through it.

Here are some of the psychological factors and skills needed not only to survive but to thrive.

Great British Life: Set your intentionsSet your intentions (Image: Getty)

Feeling powerful and taking back control

Feeling powerful and having a belief in your coping skills is key to being able to manage your emotions at diagnosis and during treatment. It is important to learn to tolerate and face up to situations we may find uncomfortable. We can then slowly build up the evidence that we can cope in a healthy way. There are lots of situations people are not in control of when it comes to cancer; appointments, scans, treatment schedules and side effects of treatments. For things that we can’t control, it’s vital to develop coping skills to deal with them in the best possible way. Recognise that no matter what is happening, you always have a choice in how you respond to it. This is a skill, and it takes time and practice. Think about two people that have the same diagnosis, the same grade of tumour, yet how they respond emotionally might be very different. One person responds with a determination that they are going to do everything in their power to get themselves through this situation, while the other person might become depressed, anxious or angry. While these emotions are completely understandable, it is important to think in a way that is going to create good coping skills. You cannot change the diagnosis, but you can change how you think about it in order to develop a healthier emotional response.


Self-esteem is just how you see yourself. It has nothing to do with what other people think of us – it is not fixed and can be changed in as little as two weeks. High self-esteem is a fundamental building block of your mental health. To manage your thinking effectively during cancer treatment, it is important to be kind to yourself. To be able to increase your own self-esteem, you need to learn to process events in a positive way. You might think this impossible if you have just been diagnosed, but with practice it gets easier. Recognise things from your daily life you would not necessarily process as positive. It could be the way you stayed calm and in control at the last hospital visit, speaking to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, or just going for a walk. Write down ten positive things that have happened in the last few weeks, in a journal or on your phone. Read your list and re-live each experience at least three times a day. For each one think about what made it a positive experience: what you would say to someone else who had this experience and what does this say about you? This exercise will really help you to feel better about yourself. Allow yourself to be happy and experience joy at the same time as having cancer.

Great British Life: Visualise how you will respond to each day's challengesVisualise how you will respond to each day's challenges (Image: Getty)


Your imagination is so powerful and you need to get it working for rather than against you (Coué’s law). If you let your imagination take hold when you have procedures like blood taken and allow yourself to become anxious about how much it will hurt, it really will be painful as your muscles will tense. To overcome this, visualise and rehearse in your head feeling calm and in control and coping with your procedure/diagnosis/ appointments/getting over any side effects quickly. Spend five minutes a day imagining what you want to happen, instead of thinking about what you fear. With repetition, this process creates new neural pathways in the brain and tricks it into thinking the situation you are visualising has already happened. When you get to it, your brain remembers what you have told it (what you want to happen), and off it goes. With visualisation, the more detail you see the better. It can be hard to do if you’re stressed, so choose a time when you’re feeling calm.


Using catastrophic language about cancer inevitably makes you feel worse. Playing things down on the other hand helps you manage your thoughts more effectively. Choose the kind of day you want to have by starting the day with a positive, active affirmation: e.g. “Today I’m going to make the best of whatever I have to deal with. I will continue to… (insert your intention). No matter what happens, I will cope with it.” Telling yourself that - even if you don’t believe it - is incredibly helpful and helps your brain work with you, rather than your imagination getting the better of you. This also helps you stay focused on what you want to achieve.

Connor’s story

Even when the diagnosis has no cure, it is still possible to thrive. When Connor was 24, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and told he had six months to live. After the initial surgery, he was told the rest of the tumour was inoperable. Faced with the stress and anxiety of his circumstances (that caused him to have more seizures), he decided to do something to improve his outlook on life and embarked on The Thrive Programme®. Five years later, he was still thriving. Conor is an inspiration to us all and if he could Thrive through his illness, anyone can.

Philippa Saunders is a licensed Thrive® Coach based in Knutsford. You can find her on Instagram @thrive.with.philippa and Facebook @thrivewithphilippa