Cancer and Mental Health: How to Cope

woman lying in bed with partner looking at her

Receiving a cancer diagnosis brings a host of concerns that extend well beyond the oncologist’s office. The impact of cancer affects mental health issues as well. According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer research shows mental health treatment affects cancer survivorship, particularly for those with mental disorders.

Everyone’s experience is unique depending on cancer type, treatment options, and other factors. Still, there are some reactions and experiences that are prevalent among cancer patients.

At SMPsychotherapy and Counseling Service, we want to be a resource during this difficult journey of cancer care. Therefore, in this blog, we will explore some of the common issues, such as the following:

  • Emotional Distress
  • Social Isolation
  • Financial Stress
  • Body Image Issues
  • Next Steps for the Journey

Emotional Distress 

Emotional distress is a common and natural aspect of the cancer experience, affecting both patients, their loved ones, and caregivers. Here are some of the critical aspects of emotional health and some ways to address them:

  • Shock and Denial: It can be difficult to accept the reality of the diagnosis, and some individuals may initially believe there must be a mistake.
  • Fear and Anxiety: Patients often worry about the disease’s progression, treatment effectiveness, and potential side effects. The fear of pain and suffering can also be distressing.
  • Depression: This can manifest as persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, and feelings of hopelessness. 
  • Grief and Loss: Patients may grieve the life they had before the illness and the loss of their sense of health and well-being. This grief can also extend to the loss of normalcy, independence, and sometimes even relationships.
  • Anger and Frustration: There are many areas where anger may be directed. Patients may be angry at their own bodies for “betraying” them or frustrated with the challenges of treatment, the healthcare system, or the unfairness of their situation.

Addressing Emotional Distress in Cancer Patients

  • Psychological Support: Mental health professionals can provide counseling and therapy to help individuals cope with emotional distress.
  • Support Groups: Joining cancer support groups or online communities can be a vital part of the care team, providing a space for sharing experiences and emotions with others who understand.
  • Medication: In some cases, referrals to psychiatry may be helpful in providing medication to help manage symptoms of anxiety or depression.
  • Mind-Body Techniques: Mindfulness meditation, yoga, and relaxation exercises can help individuals manage stress and anxiety.
  • Communication: Open and honest communication with healthcare providers, friends, and family can provide emotional support. 

Social Isolation 

Social isolation impacts patients’ emotional well-being and overall quality of life. Several factors contribute to psychosocial effects. Here are some prevalent issues and ways to address them.

  • Physical Limitations: Cancer and its treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, can cause physical limitations and side effects that may prevent patients from participating in their usual social activities. Fatigue, pain, and compromised immune function can make it challenging to engage in social interactions.
  • Fear and Anxiety: The fear of contracting infections for the general population, particularly for patients with compromised immune systems, can lead to self-imposed isolation. Patients may fear crowded places, public transportation, or close contact with friends and family.
  • Change in Priorities: A cancer diagnosis often leads patients to reassess their priorities, and they may shift away from social activities and relationships as they focus on their health and treatment.
  • Stigmatization and Misunderstanding: Some cancer patients experience stigmatization or misunderstanding from others, which can make them withdraw from social situations. Friends, coworkers, or acquaintances may react differently to someone with cancer, leading to feelings of isolation.
  • Psychological Impact: The emotional distress and mental health care challenges associated with cancer, such as anxiety and depression, can contribute to social withdrawal. Patients may isolate themselves due to sadness, shame, or low self-esteem.

Addressing Social Isolation in Cancer Patients

sick hand with IV
  • Open Communication: Encourage patients to communicate openly with their healthcare provider about their concerns regarding social isolation. Clinicians can offer guidance and support tailored to individual needs.
  • Supportive Care: Many cancer centers offer mental health services, including social workers, counselors, and psychologists, who can follow up with patients, helping them cope with the emotional challenges of cancer and provide strategies to manage isolation.
  • Support Groups: Joining cancer support groups or online communities can give patients a sense of belonging, understanding, and camaraderie with others going through similar experiences.
  • Virtual Connections: In cases where in-person interactions are limited, patients can maintain social connections through virtual means, such as video calls, emails, and social media.

Financial Stress

Cancer treatment and related expenses can be substantial. Here are some critical aspects of the financial stress of cancer and strategies to address it:

Medical Costs

Cancer treatment often involves a range of medical expenses, including doctor visits, hospital stays, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and medications. These costs can add up quickly, even with insurance.

  • Addressing Medical Costs: Patients should work closely with their healthcare team and insurance provider to understand their coverage and explore all available resources for financial assistance. Some hospitals and cancer centers offer financial counselors who can help patients navigate the complex healthcare billing system.

Lost Income

Many cancer patients struggle to continue working during treatment due to physical limitations, fatigue, or other side effects. This can lead to a loss of income at a time when expenses are increasing.

  • Addressing Lost Income: Patients should consider discussing their situation with their employer or human resources department. Some workplace policies may provide for medical leave or disability benefits. Government programs like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and disability insurance may also be options.

Prescription Medication Costs

Some cancer medications, especially newer targeted therapies and immunotherapies, can be costly. Even with insurance, copayments for prescriptions can bring an increased risk of financial hardship.

  • Addressing Medication Costs: Patients can explore options for prescription assistance programs offered by pharmaceutical companies, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies. Discussing medication costs with their healthcare team can also lead to financial assistance.

Transportation and Travel Expenses 

Depending on the location of cancer treatment centers and the patient’s residence, transportation, and lodging costs can add up, especially for those who need to travel long distances for treatment.

  • Addressing Transportation Costs: Some cancer centers offer transportation assistance or lodging options for patients and their family members. Patients can also consider seeking assistance from charitable organizations or community-based programs that provide travel and accommodation support.

Body Image Issues

Advanced cancer and its treatments, which may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy, can lead to physical health changes that affect a person’s self-perception and body image. Here are some key aspects of body image issues during cancer and strategies to address them:

Surgical Scars

Surgery is a common treatment for many types of cancer, and surgical scars can have a lasting impact on body image.

  • Addressing Surgical Scars: Patients can work with their healthcare team to discuss options for minimizing the visibility of scars, such as scar creams, silicone sheets, or surgical revision if necessary. Some people find comfort in body-positive clothing and accessories that conceal or draw attention away from scars.

Hair Loss

Chemotherapy, radiation, and some targeted therapies can cause hair loss, which can be distressing for many individuals.

  • Addressing Hair Loss: Patients may choose to wear wigs, scarves, or hats to cover their heads if they wish. Others embrace their baldness as a symbol of strength. Support groups and online communities for cancer survivors can provide a sense of community and tips for coping with hair loss.

Weight Changes 

Cancer treatments can lead to weight gain or weight loss, which can affect body image and self-esteem.

  • Addressing Weight Changes: Patients should focus on maintaining a balanced diet to the extent possible and engage in appropriate physical activity to manage weight and improve overall well-being. Support from a registered dietitian can be helpful.

Breast Changes

Breast cancer and its treatments, including mastectomy or breast reconstruction, can significantly alter breast appearance.

  • Addressing Breast Changes: Breast cancer patients may consider breast reconstruction surgery or breast prostheses to restore their breast appearance. Support groups and counseling can also help individuals cope with the emotional aspects of these changes.

Skin Changes

Radiation therapy or certain medications can cause skin changes, including discoloration, dryness, or peeling.

  • Addressing Skin Changes: Patients can use gentle, hypoallergenic skincare products and sunscreen to protect their skin. Consultation with a dermatologist or oncology nurse can provide guidance on managing skin changes.

Next Steps in Your Journey

sick man in his pjs on his bed

Cancer and its treatment can have a significant impact on your mental health. At SMPsychotherapy and Counseling Services, we want to help.

Through in-person or online therapy, we can be a vital part of your cancer care. We have therapists available for individual, child and teen, and family therapy. Contact SMPsychotherapy and Counseling Services today to get the support you need.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Spanglish How to Choose a Therapist-min

Download Your Free Mini Guide!