“You have cancer.” These three words turn a person’s life upside down. Nothing can prepare us to deal with a condition like this. Cancer can affect more than just our bodies. And while dealing with a grave disease like cancer, we often end up neglecting our minds. Sometimes, psychological problems can creep up on us without prior notice when we are too busy fighting a bigger medical battle.
But it is important that we approach these problems with empathy, whether it is happening to us or to someone close to us. There are three psychological problems which often develop in the minds of cancer patients and survivors.
Cancer can provide multiple opportunities to worry about every day to both its fighters and its survivors. After the diagnosis, it is normal to worry about the accuracy of the prognosis, the choice of treatment and the scans that detect the growth of cancer. Cancer community calls the latter as ‘scanxiety’ that every patient experiences before and after going for a scan. And for survivors, recurrence is a big reason for worry. Here are some of the symptoms of cancer associated anxiety:1
- Worrying relentlessly
- Focusing and having trouble solving issues
- Dry mouth
- Tensed muscle
- Emotional outbursts
It is normal to worry about an uncertain future. But when our worries start taking over our lives more than our disease, then it is time to seek some help. Here are some of the things we can do to alleviate anxiety:
- Don’t bottle it up: It is normal to feel overwhelmed when life throws a curveball at us. But we must find in us the courage to vocalize our angst, fears, and pain. Sometimes, we refrain from expressing because we are more concerned about the well-being of our loved ones. But we must remember that our well-being is important to our loved ones as well.
- Write it out: Writing can provide us a personal mode of venting. It can allow us to have an emotional catharsis and get all our fears and anxiety out of our systems. And writing can help us to both vent out and reaffirm our hopes.
- Meditate: Mindfulness meditation is known for producing wonderful health benefits and alleviating the effects of anxiety is one of them.2 We can practice mindfulness meditation by focusing on our breathing or the sensations in our bodies to feeling a connection to our physical presence.
- See a therapist: When things get too difficult to handle, we can always choose to see a therapist. A professional take on our pain can do us no harm. And in case things become too hard to handle, we can also explore the option of medication in consultaion with a doctor.
According to a survey conducted by the National Cancer Institute, 15 to 25% of patients get affected by depression.3 Doctors say that both patients and their loved ones can get affected by it because of the diagnosis of the disease, the uncertainty of the future, and the choice of treatment. Body image issues can also cause depression in cancer patients. It is important that we know the symptoms of this condition to deal with it. Here is a list of symptoms:
- Feeling sad, hopeless, and ’empty’
- Loss of interest in hobbies and other leisure activities
- Weight loss
- Sleeplessness or excessive sleeping
- Mood swings
- Suicidal thoughts
Depression is a clinical condition that can be cured. We must seek out help in every possible way if we are not able to deal with our problems. There is no shame in acknowledging depression as a health condition. Many different kinds of help are available out there. Here is what we can do to help ourselves.
- Physical Activity: Mild physical activities like regular walks can help us in feeling happy and less depressed. Physical activities can help in alleviating the effects of depression.4
- Reflective journaling: Writing in a journal about our pain, grief, fears, and hope can help us to find clarity through our tough times. It has been found to be helpful, especially for cancer patients.5
- Meditation: As mentioned above, mindfulness meditation can help us with anxiety as well as depression.
- Support Groups: There are many support groups where cancer patients and cancer survivors come together to help each other through their tough times. We can join such groups for additional support and courage and pay it forward.
- Therapy and medication: We can also seek professional help to deal better with this condition and opt for medication if needed.
Grief comes with an array of emotions. Different people grieve differently at different times of their battle with cancer. But regardless of the differences, the stages of grief always remain the same:
1. Shock: This is the first step of grief. When something grave happens, the first emotional reaction is always shock.
2. Denial: In this phase, we are bound to feel hopeless and life might even seem meaningless. Some people even feel numb about their situations.
3. Helplessness: Feeling helpless in a situation that is beyond our control is normal. And it is important that we go through this phase to be able to overcome the feeling of helplessness.
4. Sorrow: Feeling a deep sense of sorrow is a real and cathartic expression that can help us deal with our pain. So, we must accept sorrow instead of running away from it.
5. Anger: When we can’t control anything that is happening, we are bound to feel angry. But that frustration must be expressed positively and not repressed.
6. Physical pain: Our emotions are interconnected with our physical bodies. And when we grieving and experiencing so much emotional pain, that pain will also manifest itself physically. But the only way to deal with all of these is by accepting them all.
Every individual will experience these stages differently. But the important thing to remember is that we don’t have to go through them alone. Our loved ones can help us through. And here is what we can do to deal with it better.
- Express: There are many ways to express our grief. We can talk about it to people we trust, we can write about it, and we can even express our grief through art. The options of expression are plenty; we just need to find the right one.
- Grieve: It is important for us to grieve when we are in pain and experiencing a loss of some kind. It is only when we grieve, we can find the power to push through a bad time.
- Stick to the routine: We must carry on with our lives and our daily routines. The tiny things that we do everyday like walking our dogs can make a positive difference, especially when we are mentally fragile.
- Eat well: We must eat well to get all our nutrition to get up and fight harder every day.
- Sleep tight: Sleep can restore our bodies and minds. So, we must try to sleep well. In case of sleep disturbances, medication is an option we can consider.
- Support groups: Support groups can always provide an additional support to enable us to deal better with pain.
There are many helplines that encourage people to share their pain anonymously. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open to anyone who needs assistance. Crisis Text Line is another service that provides 24-hour support to people. International assistance numbers are also available on the International Association for Suicide Prevention website. There is no shame in seeking help. So, reach out.
We should try to live a full life even when it gets hard. Our battle becomes a little easier and less painful when we know we are not alone in this. So, let’s reach out to give and also to receive.
|↑1||Anxiety, Fear and Depression. American Cancer Society.|
|↑2||Evans, Susan, Stephen Ferrando, Marianne Findler, Charles Stowell, Colette Smart, and Dean Haglin. “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for generalized anxiety disorder.” Journal of anxiety disorders 22, no. 4 (2008): 716-721.|
|↑3||National Cancer Institute. Depression (PDQ)–Health Professional Version.|
|↑4||Ströhle, Andreas. “Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders.” Journal of neural transmission 116, no. 6 (2009): 777.|
|↑5||Smith, Susan, Cay Anderson‐Hanley, Adela Langrock, and Bruce Compas. “The effects of journaling for women with newly diagnosed breast cancer.” Psycho‐Oncology 14, no. 12 (2005): 1075-1082.|