How Cancer Affects Mental Health
The effects of cancer on physical health is well known, but it can seriously impact on mental health too. Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness like cancer is a huge shock, and people go through so many different emotions, from fear, to sadness, and anger. It can feel like you’re on a rollercoaster. Some days you’ll feel a bit more upbeat, then on other days, the reality and the effects of treatment hits. Let’s look at some of the typical emotional effects of being diagnosed with cancer.
Worrying and Anxiety
When people are diagnosed with cancer, it can be quite surreal. You might hear the oncologist say the words but you might not take them in straight away. But eventually as it sinks in, you’ll worry about the future, both for yourself and for your loved ones. Talking to each other and getting feelings out in the open is so important.
If you’re anxious about tests or treatment, arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can so you know what to expect, and it will take away a bit of the fear of the unknown.
You might feel anxious after treatment, whether you’re waiting to hear if it has been successful, or if you worry that the cancer might come back.
When you’re diagnosed with cancer, anxiety is completely normal, but if it becomes severe, it can impact upon your daily life and rob you of a lot of the strength you’ll need to get better. Worrying and anxiety can interfere with your sleep and make you tired and irritable. It can also give you physical symptoms like palpitations, nausea, shortness of breath, and digestive problems.
If you’re suffering with worry or anxiety, talk to your healthcare team, or a specialist counsellor. This can help to reassure you and give you perspective on things. They might also be able to give you advice on using relaxation techniques and complementary therapies to help reduce anxiety.
The thing many people with cancer ask themselves is ‘why me?’ You might also get frustrated that you can no longer do things that you used to do because you feel sick and tired. Feeling angry is a completely normal reaction. But it can become a problem when it harms your relationships with the people you love. Remember that your diagnosis is affecting them too. Make sure you have an honest discussion with your loved ones about how you feel, or if this seems too tough, talk to your doctor who might be able to suggest useful techniques to deal with angry thoughts.
It’s normal to feel low when you’re trying to cope with a cancer diagnosis, and one in every four people who are diagnosed develop depression. If your low mood lasts for more than a few weeks, you’ve stopped enjoying things that you used to enjoy, and you experience problems with your appetite and sleep, you may be depressed. If your low mood just won’t go away, talk to your doctor. You might be referred for counselling or other talking therapies, or they may suggest antidepressants. Lifestyle changes can help improve your mood too, like eating well and taking regular exercise.
A Word on Suicide
Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine found that people with cancer are more than four times as likely to commit suicide than people without cancer. The reasons for this are the distress, depression, and financial worry that cancer can cause. If you are feeling suicidal, it’s vital that you talk about how you feel, whether it’s to your GP, the Samaritans, or friends and family. Know that you’re not alone and that there are people who love and support you, no matter how awful things seem.
What You Can Do Yourself
Looking after Your Physical Health
Physical and mental health are interlinked, and being in good physical health can make you feel better. Eating well is important for recovery and boosting your immune system when it’s affected by cancer treatments. If you’re having trouble eating, speak to a dietician who will be able to advise you on how to best get your nutrients and calories when your appetite is poor.
Staying active can improve your mood and give your flagging energy levels a boost. Listen to your body and be active in a way that you can manage. Even a gentle walk will benefit your health and lift your spirits.
Make sure you get enough sleep. Sleep is essential for a healthy immune system, and a lack of sleep can also negatively affect your mood. If pain, depression, anxiety, or something else is keeping you awake, talk to your doctor about what might help you get back into a healthy sleeping pattern. There are things you can do yourself, such as creating a healthy bedtime routine, avoiding caffeine late in the day, turning off screens at least an hour before bed, and keeping your bedroom cool and dark.
Relaxation can help you cope with depression, anxiety, insomnia, and pain. The key to finding ways to relax is to learn what works best for you. Some people like to unwind in a warm bath, some like listening to relaxing music, and some people like to try relaxation techniques like mindfulness or meditation. There are some great apps where you can get free meditations, like Headspace and Calm.
Probably the Most Important Thing: Talk to People
When it comes to mental health, it’s important to talk about how you feel, even though it can be tough. Whether it’s your doctor, nurse, a counsellor, or your family and friends, talking about cancer and how it’s affecting your mental health can help you feel supported, less anxious, and more in control.