Can cancer affect my emotional health?

Studies show that a person with cancer may be vulnerable to anxiety or depression, and mental health support can improve chances of recovery

Ritika Dhaliwal

A diagnosis of cancer can have a huge impact on the emotional and mental health of not just the patient but also the caregivers and family members. A number of factors such as body image, altered work and family roles, and fear of death can contribute to these feelings. Physical symptoms such as lack of energy, fatigue, nausea and pain are also likely to cause emotional distress. According to a study on the prevalence of anxiety and depression in cancer patients in the US, 11 per cent to 37 per cent of people with cancer also experience depression; and 2.6 per cent to 19.4 per cent experience anxiety issues post diagnosis.

With the recent research in the field of cancer treatment, the survival rate of persons with cancer diagnosis has increased over the last few years. Now, a person with a lung cancer or melanoma can live a quality life for many years with active treatment. This means that cancer need not always be a terminal illness, and may sometimes occur as a chronic illness. But the years spent after a diagnosis of cancer are usually accompanied by a lot of emotional distress. While their physical health is being taken care of, their emotional needs are not met, and this can have a direct negative impact on the person's ability to follow teh treatment plan, their chances of survival as well as their quality of life.

Research indicates that cancer patients go through an adjustment period of four to six weeks post diagnosis. It's in this window that the intervention of a psychologist or a psycho-oncologist is crucial. Family members and caregivers can undergo emotional distress as well. This is manifested in fear of loss, the frustration of seeing a loved one suffer or guilt that they are not doing enough.

When to seek help?

Although it is important to seek emotional support from a professional immediately post-diagnosis, it is understandable that all attention is chanelled towards understanding treatment options and mental health is not viewed as a priority. 

There are, however, some indicators of psychological distress. If you notice the following signs in yourself as a caregiver or a person diagnosed with cancer, you must immediately seek professional help.

  • Thoughts or plans of suicide
  • Inability to eat or sleep
  • Lack of interest in usual activities for many days
  • Lack of interest in treatment
  • Extreme hopelessness and guilt
  • Inability to find pleasure in things previously enjoyed
  • Emotions interfering with daily activities
  • Confusion and forgetfulness
  • Sweating more than usual
  • Extreme restlessness
  • New/unusual symptoms causing concern

Persons with a diagnosis of cancer often put up a brave front so as to make those around them comfortable. Studies on coping have shown that such strategies can cause additional stress. As a caregiver or a family member, be willing to listen. Assure them that they will be accepted whether they are happy or sad, afraid, frustrated or angry. This will make them talk about their feelings and not suffer alone. As a patient, do not ignore how you feel and do take the necessary help whenever required. 

Read more on what to do when you receive a diagnosis of cancer, and about anxiety and depression