Cancer and Mental Health – Grief & How to Handle It

Cancer and Mental Health

Cancer & Mental Health

Cancer and Mental Health

Cancer and mental health go hand in hand. Hearing the words, ‘you have cancer’ has a profound affect on the person receiving the news.  The affects are felt not only in their body, but the mind as well. Being diagnosed with cancer is traumatic.  It is no wonder that even those without a history of mental health issues undergo a change in their emotional well-being upon hearing the news. Depression, anxiety and fear quickly set in when a person learns they have cancer.  The problems of the world seem to fade away as the realization sets in that mortality is staring at them in the face.

Patients, and the family of patients, experience symptoms akin to Post-Traumatic Distress (PTSD) upon receiving a traumatic diagnosis. Cancer patients (and family members) start to go through a grieving like process. This can continue as they undergo treatment, palliative and end-of-life care. Even people who are not predisposed to mental health issues may soon develop them. This is due to harsh treatment protocols and to new limitations caused by cancer.  It is important to recognize the stages of grief.

Emotional Stages of Grief

The 5 recognized emotional stages of grief are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

typically listed in this order, these are the stages of grief. Not all cancer patients go through all stages or necessarily in that order.  It is also possible for someone to revert to a previous stage.   Everyone is different and has different situations.  Psycho-oncologists, who address the emotional needs of cancer patients, have further determined that a healthy emotional response to a cancer diagnosis can be reduced to three phases that will take patients through a typical grieving process. These phases are:

  • Initial reaction
  • Distress
  • Adjustment

Initially, a person’s reaction to a cancer diagnosis is disbelief & shock. They will experience periods of distress that are characterized by mixed symptoms of anxiety, anger and depression. When patients begin to learn about their options and see a treatment plan start to form, they enter an adjustment phase. During this time, they may experience chronic sadness, in addition to depression or anxiety; decreased interest in sexual activity; fatigue; difficulty concentrating, making decision or remembering; insomnia or oversleeping; appetite & weight loss; and irritability or restlessness.


Stages Of Grief

Stages Of Grief

Other Factors Affecting Mental Health

Often, the treatment itself can cause mental health issues. During chemotherapy patients often experience a condition called Chemo Brain. This is where, while undergoing treatment, the patient develops fatigue, depression, mental fog, and cognitive impairment.

Cancer patients also face the social pressures that come from well-meaning family and friends who want more than anything for them to be OKAY.  While their concern would otherwise be appreciated, during these times patients recall feeling like they were being burdened, as if getting better was their duty to others.


Proper Diagnosis of Mental Health Issues in Cancer Patients

The effects for both cancer and cancer treatment are depression, lack of sleep, fatigue and diminished appetite.  They are also symptoms common to mental illness. Often, mental health issues among cancer patients often go undetected, especially in patients with no history of mental illness. Despite efforts by medical professionals to dispel it, there remains a stigma within society about discussing mental health. At times there are cultural factors that do not support an honest conversation about mental health. As a result, cancer patients who are experiencing mental health issues often do not get the treatment they require to cope.  Oncologists are highly aware of the link between cancer and mental illness, not only at the time of diagnosis, but through treatment and recovery process. They encourage their patients to talk about how they feel emotionally, apart for the physical symptoms of their cancer.

Coping with Mental Health Issues

Coping with Mental Health Issues

Coping with Mental Health Issues Related to Cancer

Studies have shown that cancer patients suffering from mental health issues who do not address them tend to have worse outcomes than those who do. Patients suffering with depression and anxiety are more likely to exercise less, miss appointments and fall into negative habits such as alcoholism and smoking. However, those what are accurately diagnosed and who receive treatment for their mental health issues tend to respond better to cancer treatment and experience a longer average survival time.

There is no set method for dealing with mental health issues related to cancer or of any kind.  Cancer patients come from different backgrounds, and various factors, including the patient’s support system, coping style and perception of illness will determine how best to go about dealing with their mental health.

Patients are encouraged to seek out and maintain a consistent support system of family and friends, and above all else, speak about how they feel emotionally.  If you or someone you know has cancer, try not take anything for granted, being more aware of every aspect of their health, while enjoying each day as it unfolds.

Resources For Mental Health:

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