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Cancer diagnosis - its effect on mental health

A person diagnosed with cancer can be vulnerable to anxiety and depression, making mental health support crucial at the time.

Ritika Dhaliwal

A cancer diagnosis can have a huge impact on the emotional and mental health of the person diagnosed and those around them. Many factors including body image, altered work and family roles, and fear of death contribute to this. Additionally, physical symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, and pain can also negatively affect mental health.

Research and development of cancer treatment has increased the survival rate of persons diagnosed with cancer. Today an early-stage diagnosis of lung cancer or skin cancer may not be fatal. A good quality of life can be assured with active treatment, often making cancer a chronic illness instead of a terminal one. Despite these changes, the years following a diagnosis can be accompanied by a great deal of emotional distress. A cancer patient may receive undivided attention to their physical health but their emotional needs often go unmet. This can have a direct negative impact on their ability to follow the treatment plan, their chances of survival and the quality of their life and future.

Research indicates that cancer patients go through an adjustment period of four to six weeks post-diagnosis. Ideally in this window, it is crucial for a psychologist or a psycho-oncologist to intervene. This is not just for the patient; family members and caregivers can undergo emotional distress too. They may fear the loss of their loved one; have trouble seeing them suffer; or struggle with the guilt that they are not doing enough for them.

This intervention is generally delayed because all attention during the four to six weeks’ window is channeled towards understanding the cancer treatment and focusing on the physical health of the patient. But with timely intervention, the emotional distress arising from the diagnosis can be addressed. It can also make it easier for the patient and their family/caregivers to adapt during the adjustment period, letting the patient focus on both physical and emotional recovery.

In case the patient and their caregivers are not given mental health support, it is critical to be observant of any signs of psychological distress, such as:

  • Change in appetite and sleep

  • Loss of interest in usual activities

  • Lack of interest in treatment

  • Extreme hopelessness or guilt

  • Loss of interest in things that were once pleasurable

  • Emotional behaviour interfering with daily activities

  • Confusion and forgetfulness

  • Excessive sweating

  • Extreme restlessness

  • Thoughts or plans of suicide

  • Unexpected physical symptoms

Patients also tend to bottle up their feelings in order to not make those around them feel burdened and uncomfortable. Studies on coping have shown that these strategies can actually cause additional stress to the patient. Caregivers and family members must offer them a non-judgemental and safe space to talk about their feelings. Openness and communication will make recovery easier for the patient and lessen the anxieties of the caregivers and family members.

Read more on what to do when you receive a diagnosis of cancer, and about anxiety and depression.