Cancer & Emotions Part III: A Guide for Patients and Family – Depression and Anxiety During Cancer Treatment

Cancer & Emotions Part III: A Guide for Patients and Family – depression and anxiety during cancer treatment 

You’ve been diagnosed, you’re going through treatment, seeing (too many) doctors, going back and forth, appointments, prescriptions, health insurance phone calls. All of a sudden, the enormity and terror of it all hits you like a ton of bricks. Your life has changed so drastically that you don’t even recognize it. Depression and anxiety during cancer treatment hits everyone, often in unexpected ways.

As if all of these this weren’t enough, you’re lying in bed at night (or first thing when you wake up in the morning) after an overwhelmingly “busy” and appointment-filled day and that feeling hits you. That empty, helpless, scared feeling; deep down in your gut. That worried “What am I going to do?” feeling.

Normal Reaction to Abnormal Situation

This (what I have described) is so common. It is actually the most common occurrence that people diagnosed with cancer describe. That’s if and when they get around to describing it because there is an unsolved mystery surrounding mental health: In general, people just don’t want to talk about it. The brave ones who do, tell strikingly similar stories, which means that depression and anxiety during cancer treatment is often part of the typical “package” of dealing with cancer. You are not alone.

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Not Your Fault, Is Your Challenge

Things can get a little confusing too because sometimes it’s hard to tease out where the depression and anxiety are coming from. What is causing the symptoms is important because that will lead to a clearer understanding of how to treat the emotions and feelings. The majority of people think, “It’s me, there’s something wrong with me,” when in reality depression and anxiety during cancer treatment can occur due to a variety of reasons.

One reason is that some medications and specific treatments have depression and/or anxiety as part of their side-effect profile! If this reason is ruled-out, then maybe it is “you.” But I have news for you: if the depression and/or anxiety is coming from within you, then congratulations you are a normal human being. Experiencing depression and anxiety is a normal part of the diagnosis and treatment process.

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It might be easier for you to understand this concept if you think of the opposite scenario: Imagine someone undergoing cancer treatment and not feeling depressed or anxious. Aside from this being very weird, it’s also not normal. You would think that this person is either in complete denial or that something else is seriously wrong. I know that we are all different and everyone reacts differently to change and stress, but the take home message here is that becoming depressed and anxious during cancer treatment is your body’s way of processing everything that’s going on. It’s a normal response to an abnormal situation.

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What You Can Do Now

Keep in mind that although it’s normal and part of the “process,” depression and anxiety during cancer treatment can be addressed and alleviated. Your physical health is not the only thing that cancer has touched. Your mind and in fact the very heart and soul of you at your core need healing, too. You can use this depression and anxiety to aid your entire healing process, to help you grow stronger, and to help you learn the skills you need to face not only this illness, but also life and all the ups, downs, surprises, changes, and challenges that life has in store. This is a special strength that not everyone has the opportunity to build on because not everyone has been given this challenge that you are faced with.

I work with cancer patients and their loved one. It’s a passion and a path. If you or someone you know’s life has been touched by cancer, please consider sharing my information with them.

“Release your struggle, let go of your mind, throw away your concerns, and relax into the world. No need to resist life; just do your best. Open your eyes and see that you are far more than you imagine.”
Dan Millman, Author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior

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Healing Retreat for Trauma

Healing Retreat for Trauma

In his book “The Body Keeps the Score”, Bessel van der Kolk beautifully examines the way trauma will often stay stuck in an individual’s body as well as their mind. As a result, their brain’s alarm system will go haywire and they become trapped in repetitive patterns of trauma re-creation.

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Trauma Is Relative

Trauma is relative, and it is not how extreme an event is for us that determines whether or not it is “trauma”, rather it’s the way that negative experience is defining and controlling our life. Furthermore, for many people struggling with an unresolved trauma history, talk based therapies may not be enough to really help. For the trauma survivor, just talking about a traumatic event often produces feelings of being overwhelmed and even dissociation. The frontal, reasoning part of our brain will go off line and what is left “driving the bus” is our primal brain; the amygdala and the limbic system. So even though you may have a client nodding and responding to questions, they may very well be a thousand miles away. Disconnecting from body and mind has kept many people safe for a long time, and that learned defense mechanism will often still kick in, even in the therapy office.

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In my private practice I sometimes have clients where there is only a certain point we can go to before it becomes unsafe. It is really hard to dive into someone’s deepest and darkest story when I know, and they know, that they have to pick up the kids from school in an hour. I am not saying that individual therapy is not helpful and effective, on the contrary – it absolutely is. But when it comes to severe trauma, people often need something more.

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What Is Needed

Survivor’s of trauma need a sanctuary: A safe and controlled place where they can get vulnerable and let got of the pressure to hold themselves together. This is why I love working in week-long intensive therapy settings with trauma survivors. In these personal and powerful retreats we are able to engage that primal brain with both experiential and body based approaches. By removing someone from the responsibilities and distractions of daily life and providing them with 24-hour therapeutic support, they can finally let themselves unravel the trauma story that has been shaping who they are for far too long. Yes, it isn’t easy, it may require missing a couple days of work as well as a financial investment, but that is a very small price to pay to be truly free.

Written and offered by Brennon Moore, MS, CTT, CADC-II.

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Cancer & Emotions: A Guide for Patients and Family Part II: Coping with Grief & “Why Me?”

Cancer & Emotions: A Guide for Patients and Family
Part II: Coping with Grief & “Why Me?”

Any article on grief when you’re coping with a cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment would not be complete without the often-cited “Five Stages of Grief” by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Often cited is actually an understatement. The “Five Stages of Grief” model is discussed or mentioned in almost every article, blog post, book, or magazine publication on illness, death, loss, or any moment in life when things don’t go as we plan (i.e., the rug is pulled from under our feet or we fall smack down on our faces and don’t know what to do). It’s understandable, though, because Dr. Kubler-Ross definitely knew what she was talking about. Although the model was initially created to help people prior to death, it is now used to help people going through all sorts of issues, whether you’re dealing with an illness yourself or you’re supporting someone who is going through difficult times. Here I offer my spin on the “Five Stages of Grief”.

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Stage One: Denial (“Who? Me?”)

When initially diagnosed with cancer, some people believe that it’s a mistake or that it can’t be happening to them. They might even put off beginning their treatment because of disbelief, but at a deeper level, they are really just overwhelmed with emotions, questions, concerns, and fear. When we’re stressed or scared, denial is our friend because denial is a survival instinct: It protects us from the potentially dangerous and damaging effects of stress. If you don’t believe that something is happening, then as far as your mind is concerned, it’s not happening. Denial kicks in when we need to process something new, unknown, and/or scary, but we need to process it slowly, at our own pace, so that it’s not so overwhelming.

Stage Two: Anger (“Why me?!”)

This stage is characterized by feelings of frustration, especially towards those closest to the grieving individual. Some people will enter the Anger stage immediately after diagnosis, while others will experience Anger after Denial. Feelings of Anger sometimes occur when the grieving person can no longer stay in the Denial stage (i.e., the diagnosis becomes too real). In this stage, a lot of blaming can occur. The grieving person wants to blame someone, anyone, for the illness. Some individuals feel they are being punished for some reason and will blame themselves.

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Stage Three: Bargaining (“I’ll trade you.”)

Sometimes, people wish to try to avoid their illness and feel like they can still go back to the way things were before diagnosis. Individuals will promise themselves or others (or a sky-borne deity) that they will change their ways or sacrifice something in exchange for health. Bargaining involves a misplaced sense of responsibility or blame that the grieving person puts on themselves for the cause of their illness. They feel that if they become “a better person” then a miracle will occur or they will be given a second chance and they can be well again. This implies that the person feels as if they were “bad” before and the illness is their “punishment.”

Stage Four: Depression (“What’s the point…”)

Some individuals will enter a depression stage after they recognize that they can’t avoid their illness and that the illness is real. Just like in the Denial stage, they are overwhelmed with their circumstances, but unlike the Denial stage, they accept their illness (and feel like giving up). The thought of fighting the illness feels bigger than what they believe they can handle. Many individuals will withdraw from family and friends and demonstrate an “I don’t care” or “Leave me alone” attitude.

Stage Five: Acceptance (“Everything might be alright.”)

Many individuals come to the point where they accept their illness and even embrace it. They figure that there’s nothing they can do about it, so they may as well accept it and stop stressing. This stage involves the person having a more calm view of the illness and more stable emotions about their circumstances.

Research hasn’t supported Kubler-Ross’ model, but regardless, people like it and people can relate to it and I guess that’s important too. These stages can occur in any order and some people might skip some stages, repeat two or three of the same stage, or remain in only one stage. Grieving is a process that is so unique to every individual, but understanding the process makes us feel a sense of relatedness. A sense that we are not on this journey alone and that when we read things like this article or the numerous other self-help texts and advice on how to cope, we know that these things exist because others have gone through and felt what we are feeling. This is proof that we are not alone in our struggles.

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