Marking Mental Health Awareness Month this October, we take a look at the emotional and psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis on patients and their families, and why taking the time to address these is so important…
A cancer diagnosis can be life-changing, so it’s understandable that many people going through it, both directly or indirectly, also experience feelings of depression, fear and/or anxiety.
Treatment is likely to begin as soon as a diagnosis has been made, often turning the world upside down for both patients and their families. Very quickly, the person receiving the diagnosis and their loved ones will be facing an overload of information as well as a busy schedule of medical appointments and treatment plans, all likely to disrupt many aspects of everyday life.
“Once I’d come to terms with the diagnosis, I had to accept that my life had changed. Before, it felt like I had everything in order. The next thing I knew, I was a terrified, overwhelmed cancer patient on a conveyor belt. I had an operation soon after the diagnosis, followed by six months of chemotherapy and 45 days of daily radiation.” – Rola Almalak, breast cancer survivor.
The mental health of the patient and those around them often takes a backseat at this point, but with around 40% of cancer patients experiencing mental health issues including depression and anxiety, it’s important to try and make time to address any issues you might be experiencing.
Keeping an Eye on Your Mental Health
Learning to recognise any changes to the way you’re feeling will allow you to address potential problems quickly so that you can get the help you need.
- Signs of Anxiety - Feelings of discomfort, worry, or fear about a real or possible situation.
- Signs of Depression - Feeling overwhelmed, guilty, irritable, frustrated, lacking in confidence, unhappy, indecisive, disappointed, miserable, sad.
Although these feelings may remain throughout your treatment, there are ways you can help to manage your emotional health:
- Have a consistent support system of family and friends that you can rely on. If you feel like you don’t have anyone to talk to, ask your nurse or GP about putting you in touch with a local support group (see below).
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When you are dealing with treatment and side effects, your support network can lessen the load. Family and friends usually appreciate being allowed to feel useful. You can find a few tips on asking for help later in the article.
- Try to stay organised with your time and your medical information. Knowing what you have coming up can help you feel more in control of the situation
- Spend time with loved ones and do things that bring you joy.
- Meditate. Just a few minutes a day can help to calm your mind. If that’s not your thing, try listening to an inspiring podcast.
- Connect with people who have been through what you have. Your medical team should be able to help you with this
- Write about your experiences in a journal or record them in a video. Sometimes getting things out of your system can help you process your emotions
Help from Family and Friends
You may find lots of people asking you if you need anything throughout your cancer journey. It can be hard to know what to say, but useful ideas may include:
- Preparing meals
- Doing household chores
- Picking up groceries
- Driving you to appointments
- Coordinating offers of support
- Keeping you company
- Listening to you when you need to talk
- Getting you out and about
- Taking your mind off things with ‘normal’ conversations
Other Support Sources
If you want to talk about the diagnosis or how you're coping with treatment and side effects, you may want to connect with a support group, either in person, over the phone or online. Remember, you are not alone. There are other people out there going through similar experiences and you might find it easier to talk to them than those closest to you.
Your medical team will be able to put you in touch with local support services in your area.
Some cancer patients find it very helpful to talk to a mental health professional. Psychologists and counselling services are professionally trained and can provide support and techniques to help manage and process your feelings, worries and fears. It’s worth looking into receiving this sort of help via your GP or nurse if you find you are experiencing any of the following:
- Difficulty to function on a daily basis
- Loss of desire to do things that previously gave you pleasure
- Feeling down most of the day on most days
- Reliance on stimulants like alcohol or drugs
- Loss of interest in eating
- Sleeping too much or having a lot of trouble sleeping
- Thoughts of hurting someone because of your anger
- Thoughts of self-harm or taking your own life.
Clinical mental health issues in patients with cancer can present a challenge for both general practitioners and the oncology team. Detecting depression in a patient with cancer, who may be debilitated and in pain, can be difficult, and cancer treatments can complicate antidepressant choices.
If necessary, your medical team may refer you to a specialist psycho-oncology service, who can advise on the prescription of antidepressants and provide programs that meet your specific needs, in line with your cancer type and stage.
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