Cancer and Mental Health

This content was written by Jessica Antal, MSSW, LCSW, of Thompson Cancer Survival Center. 

Jessica Antal, MSSW, LCSW

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Many people don’t realize the impact that a disease like cancer has on mental health. That’s why it is critically important that cancer patients discuss their mental and emotional health with their family members and their care team.  

Depression, anxiety, and cancer

Cancer patients commonly struggle with mental health issues throughout their diagnosis and treatment journeys. It is estimated that 25% of patients with cancer have a diagnosable depression, while approximately 30% of patients with cancer have chronic, clinical anxiety. Some patients may even experience both.

Research shows that each patient’s mental health journey is unique and somewhat unpredictable. A patient may experience a cycle of ups and downs as they progress through phases of treatment, learning to cope and adapt with each one. Mood changes may occur more often during these times of transition. Other patients with cancer may experience a subtle but continuous decline in their mental health that takes longer to recognize.

There may even be a pivotal moment in a patient’s cancer journey that drastically impacts their mental wellbeing. For example, the moment a patient is diagnosed and first hears the word “cancer” could create immediate anxiety. Others may face mental health challenges when they encounter difficult side effects from their treatment. Some patients even experience anxiety when they hear that their cancer is stable and they can begin resuming normal activities. As you can see, a diagnosis like cancer impacts everyone differently.

Signs of Mental Health Issues

It is helpful if patients and their loved ones know some of the warning signs of a mental health issue. I recommend contacting the patient’s treatment team when any of these are noticed. 

Signs of Depression:

  • a depressed or irritable mood
  • a general lack of pleasure
  • appetite changes
  • sleep disturbances
  • being slowed down or restless and agitated almost every day
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feelings of worthlessness/guilt/hopelessness
  • extreme fatigue or loss of energy
  • recurrent thoughts of death (suicide)

Signs of Anxiety:

  • excessive worry
  • trouble solving problems and focusing thoughts
  • irritability
  • restlessness
  • being easily fatigued
  • muscle tension
  • sleep disturbances

It is important to mention, some depression and anxiety is normal and totally appropriate when a patient has been told they have a life-threatening disease such as cancer. However, we recommend that patients contact their care providers if they experience symptoms of depression or anxiety that last more than a few days.   

Ways to maintain your mental health

There are a few steps you can take to help reduce depression and anxiety, including:

  • Try relaxation practices (yoga, stretching, meditations, listening to music, etc.)
  • Walk or do some form of gentle exercise
  • Participate in a new hobby or pick-up something you have enjoyed before
  • Talk to someone about your feelings (friend, spouse, support group, therapist)
  • Develop a strong relationship with your healthcare team
  • Be informed of possible side effects from treatments
  • Stay physically active
  • Be realistic about your limits
  • Allow people to help you or give you support
  • Remember it is ok to feel sad and to grieve over the loss that cancer has brought

When to seek more help

If the suggestions above do not relieve your symptoms of depression/anxiety, you may need to seek care from a professional mental health provider

Some signs you may need to seek professional help include:

  • Things you have been trying are not working
  • You are having thoughts of suicide
  • You are having frequent panic attacks
  • You have a disinterest in daily activity for more than a few days
  • You have significant impairment in major life areas (family, social, work)
  • You are unable to find pleasure in things you enjoyed in the past

Resources at Thompson

As a comprehensive cancer center, Thompson Cancer has a counseling program in place to address mental health needs of our patients.  In this program, the patient and counselor will work together to assess emotional needs and set goals to address these needs. 

To schedule an appointment with our counselor, ask for a referral to the counseling program from your care team.  For more info call (865) 331-2037.

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