I've just been diagnosed with cancer and I feel overwhelmed...

Cancer can affect both your physical and mental health. How can you cope?

Sriranjitha Jeurkar

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can lead to several intense emotions: shock, disbelief, anger, fatigue and sadness; the understanding that the illness is going to impact different aspects of their life. 

Most people who receive a diagnosis of cancer go through the different stages of grief.

 

If you’ve had a diagnosis of cancer, you may feel shock, disbelief and have several thoughts and try to seek causes or answers. “Many patients initially come seeking answers–why me? I’ve been healthy all my life, how can this happen? Is this my karma? Is it a sign from above? How bad will it be? Will I recover? Will I die?” says psychologist Hiba Siddiqui.

A diagnosis of cancer can be life-changing. The physical symptoms can cause sadness, frustration and fatigue. You may also be worried about the treatment, what it may mean physically and emotionally. 

These aspects impact your health, your family and your relationships. Depending on the diagnosis, it may also mean you need to make significant adjustments to your lifestyle–including adjusting your work or family responsibilities. 

Cancer can also affect your self esteem and identity as you try to arrange your commitments and responsibilities around your physical condition, and your treatment schedules. You may also feel less confident about yourself due to the physical changes your body is going through.

Why seek mental healthcare?

The stresses and concerns that arise from a diagnosis of cancer can be significant and affect your mental health. It’s normal to feel shocked and shaken up for a few days or weeks after the diagnosis and have anxieties about your own health. However, it’s important to keep track of how you’re feeling so you if you need to seek help.

Studies have shown that persons with cancer are more likely to be at risk for depression or anxiety, and that their mental health issues can impact their physical health and resilience. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you can include mental health in your healthcare plan to be able to cope better.

How to cope 

Your physical health and mental health go hand in hand; and here are some ways you can care for both of them if you’re diagnosed with cancer. While these are broad guidelines, you can choose to incorporate these suggestions to whatever extent possible, considering your physical health and your doctor’s directions.

  • Make sure you ask the doctor all the questions you have about your illness and the treatment. Having accurate information can help you feel more in control of your experience.
  • Talk to your doctor about modifying your lifestyle to allow you enough healthy, nourishing food. Avoid smoking and alcohol as they may make the body more vulnerable to illness, and increase stress and anxiety.
  • Incorporate exercise–even if it’s a light walk–into your daily routine.
  • Try to regulate your sleep patterns to the extent possible. Getting a full night’s sleep can help improve your mental health, and leave you feeling more in control of your emotions.
  • Keep yourself engaged with work and hobbies–anything that you enjoy doing otherwise. Find ways of de-stressing that work for you.
  • Identify and gather your sources of social support: your family, friends, neighbours for both practical and emotional support.
  • Express your feelings in whatever way feels more comfortable to you–talking to someone, using a journal or through art.
  • Join a local support group if available.

​In addition, you could consider talking to a mental health professional to cope with your illness. Psychological support can help you build support for yourself through the treatment process, and develop effective coping mechanisms. While sharing your feelings with a trained mental health professional can be cathartic, it can also support you in identifying distress situations and decreasing stress. It can also help you prepare for any physical and emotional changes that may occur.

This piece has been written with inputs from Hiba Siddiqui, counselling psychologist and psycho-oncologist.