Cancer DOES Affect Mental Health

Cancer DOES Affect Mental Health

Before and After Treatment

A cancer diagnosis is life-changing and can often lead to patients and caregivers experiencing mental health issues. It is estimated that 8-24% of cancer patients suffer from mental illness related to their diagnosis and treatment. However, these statistics are likely artificially low because some mental health issues like depression mimic cancer symptoms. According to a study out of the UK, 1/3 of cancer patients experience a mental health concern during or after treatment. Research does show that youths and young adults are at a greater risk of mental health issues than adults with a cancer diagnosis.

Furthermore, families and caregivers can also experience mental health issues after cancer treatment.

Infographic of mental health and cancer statistics

Research shows that for both caregivers and patients, mental health issues can lead to:

  • Inability to focus on treatment decisions significantly slows down the treatment process
  • Failure to make follow up appointments
  • Inconsistency with medication.

Distress is described as an unpleasant emotion, thought, and feeling. Distress affects how one might think, feel and act.

It is normal for both patients and caregivers to experience distress after a cancer diagnosis, however, when it becomes debilitating is when there is a reason for concern. The symptoms of severe distress are:

  • Thinking about cancer/death all the time
  • Feeling overwhelmed to a point of panic
  • Being excessively irritable and angry
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Questioning belief and faith that once gave you comfort
  • Having trouble concentrating

Depression is mild or severe sadness over a period of time. Research shows that 1 in 4 people diagnosed with cancer experience depression after diagnosis. Symptoms of depression can also camouflage with symptoms of cancer.

Here are some of the other signs to look for in both patients and families:

  • Loss of weightDad lying down with sleeping daughter with cancer
  • Never-ending hopelessness and sadness
  • Irregular sleep can either over-sleep or sleepless
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Pervasive thoughts of death or suicide
  • Trouble focusing, concentrating, or making decisions

Photo credit:


Anxiety is described as a feeling of dread, consistent worry, or being on edge. After a cancer diagnosis, anxiety may be triggered by:

Young cancer patient looking anxious

  • The fear of treatment and/or treatment-related side effects
  • The fear of cancer spreading
  • Concern over the change in family/relationship dynamic
  • Fear of death

There are two types of anxiety, acute anxiety, and chronic anxiety.

Acute anxiety– This is when one experiences short bursts of symptoms such as;

  • Rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling suffocated
  • Sweating or chills
  • Dizziness
  • Trembling
  • Abdominal pain etc.

Chronic anxiety– This usually lasts longer and can often be accompanied by an acute anxiety episode coupled with the following symptoms;

  • Muscle Tension
  • Difficulty breathing and focusing
  • Excessive worrying
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
How to Cope
Mother with her arm around her son with cancer

Photo Credit: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Psychological treatment– Getting in touch with a board-certified psychologist and/or Psychiatrist will help you learn tools to improve coping skills, re-shape negative thoughts, and develop an efficient support system for all parties included.

Seek out communities of people who have experienced the same. Seek out help from Here to Serve, a nonprofit that assists with the journey at home. Like the popular adage goes, “It takes a village.” Seeking and building communities around the diagnosis (such as Here to Serve) will help alleviate a lot of pressure and allow you to find additional support for yourself and your family.

Medication– Should symptoms persist, contact a certified psychiatrist and get on the proper medication to eradicate symptoms and allow you to function as usual; it is, however, often recommended that this be done in conjunction with therapy/counseling for optimum results.

Should you, your family or a friend need additional support at home after a cancer diagnosis, Here to Serve has many resources dedicated to helping you and your family during a cancer journey. Get Help at Here to Serve.

By Rhoda Naman

Cancer DOES Affect Mental Health