Cancer & Emotions: A Guide for Patients and Family (Part I)
If you or a loved one has received a cancer diagnosis and are undergoing treatment know that experiencing both physical and emotional effects throughout the process is an expected and very normal part of the journey. Emotional changes are a normal reaction to the many adjustments and changes that patients and families experience after a cancer diagnosis. There are emotional effects that some individuals experience upon receiving the diagnosis and some that arise when undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health conditions associated with the course of the illness, from diagnosis and treatment to remission. And while your oncologist will help you with your physical health during this time, a counselor who is seasoned and experienced in working with cancer patients will help you with your emotional health.
Physical and Emotional
The physical side effects of chemotherapy medication (e.g., nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue) are often accompanied by emotional side effects (e.g., depression and anxiety). Depression and anxiety alone are common side effects of chemotherapy, but one or both can occur as a result of the bodily changes that individuals experience during chemotherapy treatment. The stress associated with receiving and coping with the diagnosis itself can also cause emotional difficulties. It can be difficult to distinguish between the cause of the emotional difficulties, which is why it is important to discuss any mental health symptoms with a physician in order to understand the symptoms, determine whether they are stemming from stress or from the chemotherapy medication and to get a referral for a cancer-specialist counselor.
Many cancer patients refer to the term “chemo brain” to describe the difficulty they have concentrating and other cognitive side effects of chemotherapy (e.g., memory lapses, decreased attention). Chemo brain disappears shortly after treatment in some individuals while others experience the effects long after treatment ends. Radiation treatment can also cause chemo brain. Another common side effect of radiation therapy is fatigue or decreased energy. Low energy can sometimes be confused with or appear like the patient is depressed since individuals with radiation-related fatigue experience decreased motivation and interest in doing things they normally enjoy (a typical symptom of depression). Other side effects of radiation therapy (e.g., skin problems, hair loss, eating difficulties) can sometimes cause emotional distress, as coping with these symptoms can interfere with the individual’s daily activities and effect overall well-being.
Over and Under Diagnosing
Over-diagnosing and under-diagnosing depression and anxiety is common among cancer patients due to the overlap of symptoms and side effects. It is important to normalize feelings and emotions and avoid labeling patients as “depressed” or “anxious” during the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery process. At the same time, these emotional difficulties should be appropriately addressed especially it they are excessive or distressing to the patient. Keep in mind that stress wears on the body and during cancer treatment, you want your body’s energy to be focused on fighting the cancer and regaining your health. Communication between the patient, caregivers, treatment team and the patient’s support system is key and will contribute greatly to an improved prognosis and a better quality of life for you and your loved ones.
Thanks for visiting our blog. Stay in touch for the rest of the articles in the Cancer and Emotions series, or even take a look at some of the other great articles we’ve posted already. Journey Well!