Cancer & Mental Health

Cancer & Mental Health

By: Robin Maggio, LCSW;OSW-C;ACHP-SW, Oncology Social Worker

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, so it seems fitting to discuss how a cancer diagnosis can affect the emotional health of patients, families and caregivers.

Hearing the words “You have cancer,” can cause a wide range of thoughts, feelings and even physical reactions. That can be fear, worry, sadness, loneliness, anger, betrayal, shaking, nausea, pain…. just to name a few. We tend to focus a lot on the physical because of cancer treatment and the harsh side effects. However, the emotional and mental responses are often just as important! Ignoring or avoiding those thoughts and feelings can complicate or even interfere with your overall recovery from cancer.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer and have a history of mental health issues, trauma or substance use, it is important to let your healthcare team know. If you are taking medication prescribed from a provider outside your cancer care team, it is important that you inform them of your new cancer diagnosis so that they can make any changes in a timely fashion, if needed.

If have no prior history of mental health issues, it is important to become familiar with the emotional and mental changes that commonly occur with a cancer diagnosis and notify your oncologist right away if you start to experience them.

Anxiety means feeling uncomfortable, worried, or scared about a real or possible situation. Symptoms include:

  • Anxious facial expressions
  • Uncontrolled worry
  • Trouble solving problems and focusing thoughts
  • Muscle tension (the person may also look tense or tight)
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Restlessness, may feel keyed up or on edge
  • Dry mouth
  • Irritability or angry outbursts (grouchy or short-tempered)

Depression is when a person has been sad for a long time or is having trouble carrying out day-to-day activities. Symptoms include:

  • Ongoing sad, hopeless, or “empty” mood almost every day for most of the day
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Major weight loss (when not dieting) or weight gain
  • Sleep changes (can’t sleep, early waking, or oversleeping)
  • Extreme tiredness or less energy almost every day
  • Other people notice that you’re restless or “slowed down” almost every day
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and helplessness
  • Trouble focusing, remembering or making decisions
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide, or attempts at suicide
  • Wide mood swings from depression to periods of agitation and high energy

Distress is an unpleasant emotion, feeling, thought, condition, or behavior. It can affect the way you think, feel, or act, and can make it hard to cope with the effects of having cancer. Sometimes distress can go from an expected level to one that interferes with treatment, makes it hard for you to function or cope, and affects all parts of your life. Signs and symptoms of more serious distress include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed to the point of panic
  • Being overcome by a sense of dread
  • Feeling so sad that you think you can’t go through treatment
  • Being unusually irritable and angry
  • Feeling unable to cope with pain, tiredness and nausea
  • Poor concentration, “fuzzy thinking,” and sudden memory problems
  • Having a very hard time making decisions – even about little things
  • Feeling hopeless – wondering if there’s any point in going on
  • Thinking about cancer and/or death all the time
  • Having trouble sleeping or getting less than 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night
  • Having trouble eating for a few weeks
  • Family conflicts and issues that seem impossible to resolve
  • Questioning faith and beliefs that once gave you comfort
  • Feeling worthless, useless, and like a burden to others

There is no need to suffer in silence, we have a variety of interventions that can provide you with relief and support. Some of these include talking with a professional, talking with other survivors, participating in activities that use other aspects of your brain –such as art, music, physical activity, spiritual support, and medications if needed.

Fighting cancer is more than just surviving. It’s about giving you a good quality of life before, during and after cancer. Some degree of mental and emotional changes is inevitable with this life-changing experience, but there are some ways to help manage those feelings.

  • Talk to someone about your feelings and fears.
  • Remember that it’s OK to feel sad and frustrated.
  • Get help through counseling and/or support groups.
  • Mindfulness activities such as yoga.
  • Meditation, prayer or other types of spiritual support.
  • Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises.
  • Exercise
  • Keep a journal.

Your care team wants you to have the best life possible-physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually but we need your help to do so! If you are experiencing thoughts and feelings that are new, concerning, or controlling your quality of life…please communicate this to someone on your team. Your doctor, nurse, social worker, dietitian, physical therapist or chaplain can all help you to identify the next step and to provide some relief and support.

To learn more about Woman’s Cancer Survivorship program visit our website.