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How to Make the Most of Your Phone in the Waiting Room

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Wendy Baer, MD - Blogs
By Wendy Baer, MDPsychiatric oncologistFebruary 5, 2019

During cancer treatment people spend a lot of time sitting and waiting - in the lobby before a doctor’s appointment, while in line for lab work or a scan, or, for people in chemotherapy, hours in the infusion center while medications are delivered through an IV or port. Working in a cancer center, I’ve noticed that most people spend this time on their phones – and, as a psychiatrist, I can tell you that how they’re using their phones can make a big difference in their mood and worry level.

Phone time seems to fall into three categories:

Productive

When people are using their phones in a productive way, they are focused on the features that help them stay organized through cancer treatment. For instance, they use the alarm to help them remember to take their medications, calendar for appointments and lunch dates with friends, the notes for medication lists and doctor questions, and the reminder to do some stress reduction activities and gentle movement (exercise).

Patients can also use their phones to access meditation apps, new recipes, places to visit (city parks, libraries, museums), and step counters to keep track of exercise. Using the phone to stay organized often leaves people feeling more settled (less anxious), and more in control of their cancer experience. But even this “productive” use of the phone can become counter-productive if people continue managing their cancer treatment plans late into the night, which may increase cancer worry and interfere with good quality sleep. And although work calls and emails on the phone can be a good distraction from cancer worries, trying to work during infusion, when there are lots of interruptions, often leaves people feeling irritable and frustrated. If possible, plan ahead and schedule work calls and emails during times you know you will not be interrupted.

Passive

Some patients and families use the phone while they are sitting and waiting during cancer treatment to play games or scroll through social media. The quality of the games varies quite a lot, as does the content of the social media. Playing passive games, ones that require no more than tapping the screen, while waiting and sitting may you feeling more antsy and frustrated since time seems to pass more slowly with boring activities. People who play in games that require more problem solving or strategy may find time passing more quickly, plus they get the satisfaction of having challenged themselves with the game (chess, scrabble, Grey Labyrinth, Syvum). Caution, if gaming keeps you seated for more than one hour, you may be worsening cancer fatigue by further aggravating deconditioning from treatment, so do get up, and move around – hourly, if possible. Beyond the time spent on the game, think about if your game leaves you feeling bored, or do you feel productive and upbeat after playing? Try to choose games that enhance your mood.

Do the same kind of reflection about your mood after you spend time on social media. Does it help your mood to see what other people are doing, or does the time on social media leave you feeling down and left out (aka FOMO – fear of missing out)? One patient decided she had to stop Facebooking till after treatment because she was so disappointed not to be traveling like her friends while she was getting chemo. There are social media sites that specifically meant to be uplifting (Positive Psychology, Livestrong, TED Talks), so you may want to thoughtfully select what you follow on Facebook, Instagram, You Tube, Twitter or Snapchat, especially while you are sitting and waiting during cancer treatment.

Personal

During cancer treatment people become patients, and family become caregivers, which can feel like your whole life is all about medical care, that you are just a “number in the system” without a full life outside of the cancer center. People often talk about “who I was”, “how I used to be,” “what I did” before cancer became part of their life. The phone is often a way people are able to remind themselves of what matters to them as a whole person and allow them to reconnect with what they value. Reconnecting with what you value may motivate you to continue to manage cancer as much as possible so you can get back to regular life as soon as possible.

Pictures seem to be the most common way patients and family reconnect with (and share) their personal stories outside of their cancer experience. Patients have shown me beautiful paintings they have made, sweet dogs they have loved, long curly hair they cherished, places they hiked, grandkids they care for daily or who live in countries far away, spaces in their home they have converted into comfortable reading corners, motorcycles they used to ride, and beautiful beaches they have visited. All these amazing pictures were immediately accessible on the phone, and almost always leave people smiling after they look at them.

Beyond the pictures, writing notes on the phone about what is personally meaningful to you can be a quick way to enhance your mood while sitting and waiting during cancer treatment. Challenge yourself to write down a couple things you are grateful for, simple things that happened yesterday or this morning – a warm cup of tea, a pretty sunrise, or a good old song on the radio. The practice of writing down what you are are grateful for will help you get in touch with what matters to you, and writing it in your phone keeps it easily accessible to read over for a mood booster, especially while you are sitting and waiting during cancer treatment.

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About the Author
Wendy Baer, MD

Wendy Baer, MD, is the medical director of psychiatric oncology at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta. Dr. Baer helps patients and their families deal with the stress of receiving a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment. Her expertise in treating clinical depression and anxiety helps people manage emotions, behaviors and relationships during difficult times.

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