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Woman with cancer speaking with doctor about mental health

The connection between mental health and cancer treatment

July 03, 2024
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For some patients, going through cancer treatment profoundly affects mental health. Studies have shown that up to 35% of cancer patients are affected by a mental disorder, with many more having other mental issues not necessarily defined as a disorder. The takeaway? Mental health is an important part of cancer treatment that shouldn’t be ignored. Sharing symptoms of anxiety and depression with your health care team and loved ones can help boost your mental health and make the treatment process a little easier.

How Cancer Can Affect Your Emotions

Learning you have been diagnosed with cancer can trigger a range of emotions. As you go through treatment, these feelings may change by the day, hour or minute. 

You may notice that you feel overwhelmed, worried, scared, angry, lonely or guilty. In addition to worrying about the disease itself and how treatment may affect you, you might be stressed about money, your job or taking care of your family. You might also find yourself feeling angry or resentful toward your healthy friends and family members and even your health care team. These feelings may alternate with more positive emotions, such as hope as you adapt to treatment and new routines and gratitude for all the people and things you have to be thankful for in your life.

Remember these emotional changes are all normal and nothing to feel ashamed about. However, pay attention to negative feelings you can’t seem to escape. 

Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression are common mental health conditions for people going through cancer treatment. While they are normal, that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do about them. 

Signs of anxiety might include:

  • Changes in sleep or eating habits

  • Dry mouth

  • Irritability

  • Muscle tension or pain

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Restlessness

  • Shaking or trembling

  • Trouble concentrating or solving problems

  • Uncontrolled worry

  • Weakness or dizziness

Signs of depression might include:

  • Fatigue and lack of energy

  • Feeling sad or hopeless most of the time

  • Feeling worthless or helpless

  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide

  • Lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy

  • Sleeping too much or not enough

  • Trouble focusing 

  • Unexplained weight loss or gain

What You Can Do

You don’t have to face these feelings alone. If you are having symptoms of anxiety and depression that don’t go away, it’s important to talk to your doctor

Your doctor can tell you if any of these symptoms could be due to your treatment, as well as give you resources to help you deal with your anxiety that may include: 

  • Joining a support group

  • Taking medication for anxiety or depression

  • Talking to a counselor or therapist

Talking to a trusted friend or family member can also help you process your emotions. But there may be times when you don’t feel like talking about your cancer, and that’s fine, too. Be honest with your loved ones about how you are feeling. Writing down your thoughts is helpful for many people. 

Lifestyle changes can help you relieve stress and feel better emotionally. Some things to try include:

  • Staying active: Getting regular exercise can help your body stay strong while relieving stress and raising your spirits.

  • Focusing on activities you enjoy: Make time for favorite hobbies and activities, such as doing crafts, reading, listening to music, painting, writing or spending time outdoors.

  • Trying relaxation techniques: Meditation, yoga and guided relaxation exercises can help you release worry and stress. 

Need a doctor to help you manage the emotions that come with cancer treatment?  Start with a primary care physician at St. Luke’s Health.

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