How Does Cancer Affect Mental Health for Cancer Patients?

Cancer DOES Affect Mental Health

Before and After Treatment

Mental Health Issues in Cancer Patients

Does Cancer Cause Mental Health Issues?

A cancer diagnosis is life-changing and can often lead to patients and caregivers experiencing mental health issues.

    How Many Cancer Patients Suffer from Mental Illness?

    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.

    Families and caregivers can also experience mental health issues after cancer treatment.

    Infographic of mental health and cancer statistics

    How Does Cancer Affect You Emotionally?

    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

    Pediatric cancer challenging and traumatic for patients and their families. Children undergoing cancer treatment are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues, including distress, depression, and anxiety.

    Emotional Distress

    What is Emotional Distress?

    Emotional 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. 

      Emotional Distress Symptoms

      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


        What is Depression?

        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.

          Depression Symptoms

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

          • 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
          Dad lying in bed cuddling sleeping pediatric cancer patient


          What is Anxiety?

          Anxiety is described as a feeling of dread, consistent worry, or being on edge. It is common for both cancer patients and their families to develop anxiety after a diagnosis.

            What causes Anxiety?

            After a cancer diagnosis, anxiety may be triggered by:

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

              Types of Anxiety

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

              Two pediatric cancer patients wearing masks - one white and one green
              Acute Anxiety
              Acute Anxiety Symptoms

              Acute anxiety his 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
              Chronic Anxiety
              Chronic Anxiety Symptoms

              Chronic anxiety often manifests in the following symptoms:

              • Muscle Tension
              • Difficulty breathing and focusing
              • Excessive worrying
              • Irritability
              • Fatigue

                Coping with Pediatric Cancer

                Coping with mental health issues is a critical aspect of pediatric cancer care. There are several strategies that patients and their families can employ to manage these challenges along their pediatric cancer journey. 

                Photo Credit: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

                Talk Therapy

                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.

                  Support Groups & Communities

                  Find people you can to relate to who have gone through mental health issues during cancer treatment. Seek out help from Here to Serve, a pediatric cancer 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.

                  Resources like support groups can be therapeutic for a lot of patients and their families. Relating to others experiencing this traumatic experience can help people feel less alone and more understood in their pediatric cancer journey.


                    Should symptoms persist, contact a certified psychiatrist and get on the proper medication. This helps to reduce symptoms to allow you to function normally. It’s recommended that prescribed medication be used in conjunction with talk therapy and counseling for the best results.

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