Mental Health Awareness Following a Cancer Diagnosis


Discussing changes in mental health can normalize this part of the healing process.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. As someone who has worked for several years in the mental health and substance abuse field, I am glad to see more and more individuals openly talking about mental health. Most people are likely to experience depression at least once, and there is no doubt that coping with a cancer diagnosis can bring on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Some individuals believe that bringing up the topic of mental health is taboo or can lead someone to feel depressed. In reality, bringing up such important topics opens the door to explore healthy ways to cope. And if you find yourself struggling a bit emotionally, it helps to find supportive resources. Also, attending a support group for mental wellbeing when coping with cancer does not necessarily mean you have a mental illness. You, and maybe even family members, could benefit from a little extra support while healing.

I was recently speaking with a local oncologist in Miami who is very interested in working together to create a presentation and workshop for cancer survivors to address healthy psychosocial adjustment following a cancer diagnosis. While specialists discuss pain management and explain what to expect following a cancer diagnosis, the emphasis seems to be put on how the patient is doing physically, not emotionally. As a mental health professional, it occurred to me after my own cancer diagnosis and procedures that no professional asked me how I was doing emotionally. It seems to me the role of mental wellbeing can have a lot to do with the quality of how individuals may heal physically. I will give the benefit of the doubt and say most of my medical providers knew I was attending yoga teacher training while undergoing procedures, so maybe they assumed I was OK and managing, but are others being asked?

Maybe I will assume your care providers have not asked you how you are feeling. Feelings of loss, grief and fear are all normal. What may not be healthy is if such feelings continue in a manner that interferes with daily functioning. These feelings and their impact on life might be difficult to assess, especially since treatments can interfere with hormones, appetite, sleep, energy levels and memory. Additionally, you may not be able to participate in normal daily activities, so some of the areas normally used to determine how well an individual is coping are already off.

I will ask you to consider some important questions you can possibly ask yourself and might be things you want to bring up with a qualified medical provider.

How is your mood and outlook for the future?

Do you have interest in your daily activities, but you find it difficult to participate in them due to a lack of energy associated with treatments? Or, would you say you have generally lost interest in most all activities aside from energy levels or limited physical abilities?

Are you open to new ways to spend your time productively to nurture your mind?

Do you still enjoy seeing your family and spending time with them when up to it?

Do you generally have a desire to socialize with friends, despite being unable to drive or get around? This again may be more difficult to assess, but consider if you are isolating on purpose or is it due to an inability to get around easily?

I know when I was undergoing some of my first procedures, it was almost a good 12 weeks or so before I could drive and participate in any typical activities. I occupied my time by reading and working on career or personal goals when friends and family were busy. Other individuals have shared with me that they initially isolated themselves because it was hard to address questions about hair loss, or obvious changes to their body following cancer surgeries. Are you turning everyone away, if you are unable to address changes to your body? Could you benefit from speaking to others who have lost their hair or who are also experiencing the frustration of treatments and procedures? Such changes can logically lead to feelings of anger, frustration, and loss which with limited outlets might be addressed by talking to someone.

You also may want to consider the quality of your self-talk and thoughts about the future as I mentioned. Are you optimistic and do you look forward to the future, or could you benefit from speaking to someone about feelings of sadness? I would also ask you to consider if there have been any changes to alcohol or other substance use. Have you increased drinking to the point where it is concerning to yourself or your family? If you see an increase or change in drinking or other substance use to tune out emotionally, if might be good to consider speaking to a mental health professional.

At some point, can you discuss your cancer and fears you have, or are you keeping everything inside, afraid you will scare your family or children?

Do you feel like a burden, worthless or hopeless?

By bringing up topics such as those mentioned above, you might find yourself attending a support group where you can learn that others are likely experiencing the same or similar symptoms. Discussing what are most likely temporary changes can normalize what is part of the healing process. This, along with helping your body heal, can lead to good mind/body wellness.

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