Hearing the word ‘cancer’ come out of a doctor’s mouth may well be the scariest thing that most of us can imagine. Below is a guide to a cancer diagnosis’s impact on your mental health and ways to help you stay on track.
A cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment can take as much of a toll on the mind as they do on the body. Depression and anxiety are commonly seen in patients, although it is worth noting that some symptoms of cancer, and side effects of certain treatments, can also mimic depressive symptoms.
Depression usually manifests in a disinterest in things and activities that were previously enjoyed, feelings of (often intense) sadness, and feelings of hopelessness, which can sometimes culminate in thoughts of suicide. The physical symptoms of depression can include finding it challenging to concentrate, problems sleeping, a racing heart, dry mouth, increased sweating, and a decrease in energy levels. Digestive issues and a feeling of emotional numbness or of being shaky are common symptoms, too.
Ways To Combat Depression
Talking can be a huge help when it comes to alleviating some of the symptoms of depression. It’s really important to speak with your medical practitioner if you are experiencing depression, who will be able to support you and offer some possible routes to help you overcome the feelings you are experiencing; this could be through talking therapies, medication, or a combination of both.
Self-care is vital: you may feel as if nothing holds any joy or interest anymore, but it is important to try to find activities that will lift your mood, even if you don’t initially feel like undertaking them. Aim to read a few pages of a book once a day, if reading previously brought you pleasure, or practice some gentle yoga, or go swimming with a friend. Exercise is especially helpful as it decreases cortisol levels in the body – responsible for feelings of stress – while boosting the production of the happy hormone endorphin.
Be aware of alcohol consumption, too. Depression and low mood can make us more prone to turning to drink in a bid to overlay or numb the sad feelings we are experiencing. Following a cancer diagnosis, it is even more important to be mindful of our alcohol intake, not least in terms of how this could interact with treatments we are undergoing.
Cutting back on alcohol can also improve sleep quality and raise energy levels; read more here on the other ways that giving up the booze can help alleviate the symptoms of depression, protect our immune system, and boost our mental health.
Anxiety and depression often go together, but they are conditions that are distinct from each other, and each can present separately. Anxiety typically manifests in feelings of intense and frequent worry, tension, and an inability to focus or concentrate. Like depression, it can cause a dry mouth and trembling or shaking and muscle tension, restlessness, and irritability.
As with depression, talking with a professional is vital to get the support you need to feel better. You may also want to consider joining a support group specifically for those who have cancer or just received a cancer diagnosis. Both in-person and online support groups are available; The National Cancer Institute offers a directory of all the groups currently running, and this can be accessed via their website.
Many people also find that incorporating mindful practices into their daily lives can be an effective technique to alleviate the symptoms of both anxiety and depression. The essence of mindfulness is to be fully immersed and focused on the present moment or whatever activity you are engaged in: whether that’s enjoying a cup of tea sat in the garden, listening to the movement of the wind in the trees on a walk, or being fully present while speaking with family and friends. Keeping our full intention on the present moment can help to still our minds, ameliorating the symptoms of both depression and anxiety.
As discussed above, exercise is also one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal when it comes to fighting feelings of sadness, stress, and tension – even gentle exercise for half an hour every day can make a huge difference to your state of mind.
Journaling can be an effective way to help release and process the emotions you are feeling and can be an outlet for feelings of anger and despair. Keeping a record of your state of mind throughout your treatment can also be a useful way to track your condition and discover what techniques have worked best in alleviating the symptoms you are experiencing.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
It’s not uncommon for those diagnosed with cancer or cancer survivors to experience symptoms akin to PTSD. These can include nightmares and flashbacks, trouble sleeping, fear, helplessness, and even shame. Memory and concentration problems are also not unusual in those suffering from this disorder, and a loss of appetite, a tendency to self-destructive behavior, and hallucinations are some of the other symptoms that frequently present in patients.
Talking with a medical professional is vital if you think you may be experiencing PTSD to get you the support you need; in most cases, as well as therapy and/or medication, a management plan will be drawn up to help you manage the condition to limit its effects on your daily life.
Alleviating Symptoms Of PTSD
Keeping to the treatment plan that will be made for you is key to managing the condition. Getting enough sleep and exercising regularly, as well as eating a healthy diet, is also likely to be very beneficial. Avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol is also advised, as all of these substances can cause an increase in stress. Many PTSD sufferers find that taking up a new hobby is helpful and can act as a distraction from upsetting thoughts and flashbacks.
Other Ways To Protect Your Mental Health
As well as the tips listed above, there are other ways to protect your mental health in the wake of a cancer diagnosis. Limit the effects of stress and exhaustion by not cramming your diary with too many activities and appointments every week; getting enough rest is vital to your state of mind. Where there’s no choice but to attend multiple appointments on the same day, try to leave plenty of time between each so that you’re not rushing and liable to feeling stressed as a result.
Be sure to make time to spend with friends and family, in whatever ways you feel you can manage. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: if having a bit of assistance with household chores would make a difference, then let your loved ones know: chances are, they will jump at the chance to support you.
Use relaxation techniques regularly: as well as meditation, breathing exercises can be a quick and easy way to promote feelings of calmness, or try visualization or crystal work if this is something that appeals to you.
Focus on yourself and on what works for you: use the support network around you, and practice saying ‘no’ if you need to protect your energy. Spend plenty of time outdoors, if you can, and do things that you enjoy as often as possible, whether that’s having lunch out with friends, walking your dog through the fields, or simply relaxing while listening to your favorite music, listening to the sound of the rain on the window panes.