Cancer and Mental Health Issues

October 22, 2021
Cancer and Mental Health Issues

Written by Sarah Kown 

 

Let's not sugar coat it, a cancer diagnosis is devastating and terrifying. In fact, cancer and mental health issues go hand in hand, with 40% of cancer patients reporting severe mental health issues following their diagnosis according to multiple academic studies

You will be faced with many challenges throughout your cancer journey: physical, mental, emotional, financial, and even social challenges can arise at different times.  The mental symptoms of cancer can include everything from an ongoing brain fog after chemo to longer term post-traumatic stress disorders. 

Finding the right cancer support source from the time of diagnosis, to well beyond finishing treatment is absolutely crucial in minimizing your stress and anxiety levels and ensuring that you come out on the right side of cancer and mental health issues. Be sure to surround yourself with individuals (online and offline) who can lend a hand when you need it, even though sometimes it might not feel like the most natural thing for you to accept.  

Stress can disrupt your sleep, diet, mood, digestion, hormones, and ability to focus. However, what many people aren’t aware of is that stress can also affect our ability to heal and fight cancer.   

Several studies have shown that the stress hormones norepinephrine and cortisol can actually promote tumor growth and metastasis (cancer spread) in a variety of cancers (from oral cancers to prostate).  These hormones contain neurotransmitters which stimulate cancer cells to expand and adjust to new places in the body.

Stress can also lead to overeating, drugs, smoking, or unhealthy amounts of alcohol consumption which all contribute to unfavorable cancer treatment outcomes.

Even with the best cancer support sources, you may still feel all the mental symptoms of cancer.  Unless someone has been in your shoes, they may not fully understand what you're going through or the fears you have.  It's also very normal to not want to share these fears with your loved ones to keep them from worrying.

There's also a good chance that your friends and family aren't trained in supporting a loved one through cancer and mental health issues including depression, post-traumatic stress, body image issues, and all of the other challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis.

Can Cancer Cause Mental Illness? 

It's common to experience mood changes after an initial diagnosis, but during cancer treatment you may find that your emotions are even harder to control.  Cancer treatment activates the immune system, which in turn leads to changes in brain chemicals. This can make it even more difficult to cope with stress and anxiety, especially on your own.  

If you feel like you don't have control over your emotions, it's extremely important to seek professional help before the issue gets out of hand.  In the meantime, be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to feel out of control - you’re going through a major life changing situation.  It’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed, confused, scared, and all of the other emotions you’re likely contending with. 

How to Find the Right Professional 

Mental health professionals will understand the complex nature of your cancer diagnosis and can be an enormous cancer support source.  They are trained in understanding and helping you cope with the heightened levels of emotions cancer brings that you may not have experienced before.  They’re also familiar with which coping mechanisms and behavioral therapies work best for individuals with a cancer diagnosis. 

Times you might consider seeking professional help for mental symptoms of cancer include:  

  1. If you're struggling with the fears that your cancer hasn’t been cured or that will return.
  2. If you’re struggling with accepting a late stage diagnosis.
  3. If you're having a hard time pushing negative thoughts out of your head.
  4. If you don't have any motivation to do your every routines (eating properly, exercising, etc.)

If you don’t have the means to speak with someone about cancer and mental health issues one on one, many patients and their caregivers find that support groups, either online or in person, are also very effective. You don’t even need to share your story if you don’t want to.  Just hearing the stories of others in a similar situation as your own can often be extremely helpful.    

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