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Maintaining Good Mental Health When Coping With a Cancer Diagnosis

alt textMay is Mental Health Awareness Month. Today's guest blog post comes from CancerCare Social Worker Maryrose Mongelli. Maryrose shares her experience providing emotional support for individuals coping with cancer.

Why is maintaining good mental health important?

Mental health encompasses an individual's emotional, psychological and social well-being. These aspects of a person’s well-being can be affected after a cancer diagnosis, during treatment and while in remission. It’s important to remember that your health care team is there to treat the whole person, including your mental health concerns. Feelings like stress, anxiety and fatigue are common after a cancer diagnosis. Discussing these feelings with your health care team when they arise can strengthen your emotional well-being and provide an enormous sense of relief.

What mental health concerns can come up after a cancer diagnosis?

Possible mental health concerns may include one or more of the following:

  • Sadness is common after a cancer diagnosis. It is important to pay attention to intense bouts of sadness, as these can lead to depression.
  • Anxiety (or worry) is a natural emotional experience, but can intensify after a cancer diagnosis. Chronic anxiety can lead to depression or fatigue (extreme tiredness) over time.
  • Fear is one of the many complex emotions that can arise after a cancer diagnosis. Fear of recurrence (the cancer returning) is also not at all uncommon for cancer survivors.
  • Post-traumatic stress can be a response to a life changing event like a cancer diagnosis. Recently seeing a loved one go through a serious illness can also trigger personal trauma.

How can your health care team help?

Providing your health care team with a thorough medical history (including any previous mental health diagnoses) will allow your team to provide better care. If any of the above referenced feelings arise, talk with your health care team about these feelings, and ask if they can refer you to a counselor. If necessary your doctor may conduct a psychological evaluation. Keep in mind that treating the “whole person,” also means treating one’s emotions, so it’s important for your health care team to know about any emotional distress. Whether you are seeing a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist , it is important that they communicate with the rest of your health care team. Lastly, make sure your oncologist knows if you’re taking psychotropic medications.

How can someone living with cancer help themselves?

Take note of shifts in your mood, appetite or any changes that make it difficult to accomplish daily tasks. Listen to loved ones if they notice changes in your mood. Sometimes they see changes that you might not recognize yourself. Speak to your health care team if these changes occur.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This type of therapy can help you manage your feelings, challenge some of your negative thoughts and replace them with more helpful ones. To learn more about CBT, read our fact sheet titled, “How to Recognize and Change Negative Thought Patterns When You Have Cancer.

Try simple breathing exercises. This four-step breathing exercise is one example that you can try:
- Take in a deep breath from your diaphragm (the muscle between your lungs and abdomen).
- Hold the breath for several seconds—however long is comfortable for you—and then exhale slowly.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2 two more times.
- Afterward, relax for a moment and let yourself feel the experience of being calm.

Seek support. Supportive resources like individual counseling help reduce emotional stress. Call 800-813-4673 to speak with one of CancerCare’s oncology social workers and learn more about CancerCare’s individual counseling and resources near you.

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