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Stress and coping with advanced cancer



Objective: For people with advanced cancer, the months preceding death can be very stressful. Moreover, cancer-related stressors can arise within multiple dimensions. However, little research has examined how people cope differentially with different types of stressors. The goal of this study was to examine patterns of coping across different dimensions of stress.

Method: Fifty-two patients who were receiving palliative care for cancer were asked to indicate their most significant stressors within social, physical, and existential dimensions. A structured interview was then conducted to describe how the participants coped with these stressors.

Results: Overall, stressor severity ratings were correlated significantly across the three dimensions, although physical symptoms received the highest mean rating. Participants generally used a range of coping strategies to deal with their stressors, but there were clear differences across dimensions in the relative use of problem-focused versus emotion-focused strategies. Problem-focused coping was less frequent for existential issues, whereas emotion-focused strategies were used less frequently for physical stressors. Coping efforts were not clearly related to psychological distress.

Significance of results: Although coping is an important research theme within psycho-oncology, it may be overly broad to ask, “How do people cope with cancer?” In fact, different cancer-related stressors are coped with in very different ways. There is not necessarily any particular pattern of coping that is best for relieving psychological distress.


Corresponding author

Corresponding author: Dr. Keith Wilson, Ph.D., Institute for Rehabilitation Research and Development, The Rehabilitation Centre, The Ottawa Hospital, 505 Smyth Road, Ottawa, Ontario, K1H 8M2 Canada. E-mail:


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Stress and coping with advanced cancer



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