The relation between mental adjustment, often referred to as coping strategies, and emotional well-being and their changes over time were studied in 139 consecutive, newly diagnosed gastrointestinal cancer patients. Sixty-six patients were potentially cured since all known disease could be removed by surgery, whereas in 73 patients, this was not possible. A more confronting reaction to the diagnosis was associated with better emotional well-being whereas avoidance of reminders of, and intrusive thoughts about the disease were associated with more distress. In agreement with other studies, we found that the coping strategy ‘Fighting Spirit’ was associated with better emotional well-being while the reverse was true for the strategies ‘Hopeless/Helplessness’ and ‘Anxious Preoccupation’. There were only minor changes over time in the average values of emotional well-being and coping strategies, particularly among patients who at diagnosis were considered incurable. In analyses of each individual's changes of predominant coping style and whether they were categorized as cases/doubtful cases on the HAD anxiety and depression scale, marked changes were, however, seen in several patients.

The analyses of mean values give an impression of stability, whereas analyses of the number of patients with a specific predominant coping strategy and how they change, give another. The question of whether coping strategies and emotional well-being change through the course of the disease has no simple and obvious answer. Whether some of the investigated coping strategies should be conceptualized in terms of coping, or whether they are an outcome of the coping efforts, are discussed. © 1998 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.