How to Cope with a Cancer Diagnosis
The news of a cancer diagnosis is never easy. In the blink of an eye, you’re thrown into battle as the chaos and stress of appointments, scans, and labs impede on your everyday life and fear starts to grab hold of you and your family. Between the weight of a new reality and the medical demands required to manage and fight such a disease, it’s no wonder cancer patients often feel overwhelmed, exhausted and anxious. While these are pretty normal reactions to life altering news, they are also often overlooked and written off, leaving a variety of mental health conditions untreated in cancer patients and their families.
In fact, anywhere from 8-24% of people with cancer are also living with depression1. In addition, research shows that depression not only leads to a poorer quality of life, but can also increase mortality rates by up to 39%2. This makes it especially important to be proactive in receiving support because when your mental health is compromised, especially while fighting cancer, your body cannot do its best to heal.
So what exactly can be done to alleviate some of the mental burdens a cancer diagnosis often brings about? How do patients and families maintain mental wellness while navigating treatment and recovery?
This is the specialized role of a psycho-oncologist or cancer therapist.
1 Krebber, A. M., Buffart, L. M., Kleijn, G., Riepma, I. C., de Bree, R., Leemans, C. R., Becker, A., Brug, J., van Straten, A., Cuijpers, P., & Verdonck-de Leeuw, I. M. “Prevalence of depression in cancer patients: a meta-analysis of diagnostic interviews and self-report instruments,” Psycho-oncology, (Feb 2014) 23(2), 121–130. https://doi.org/10.1002/pon.34092 Jillian R. Satin MA,Wolfgang Linden PhD,Melanie J. Phillips BSc. “Depression as a predictor of disease progression and mortality in cancer patients
What is a Cancer Therapist?
By focusing on the way the mind affects the body cancer therapists become an important part of the cancer treatment team. They help individuals and families navigate difficult news, learn coping strategies, reduce stress, and build resilience. They support their patient as a whole by addressing the emotional and mental challenges that arise before, during, and after treatment.
Benefits of working with a Cancer Therapist
For many, mental burdens begin the moment a patient is told they might have cancer. Days, and even weeks, of uncertainty causes anxiety to build up as a patient and their family await potentially life-changing results. This makes working with a cancer therapist crucial from day one as it can help the patients and their families cope during this interim period of
uncertainty. In an age where we are so accustomed to quick information and immediate solutions to every problem, it can be extremely difficult to be in a situation where your life is potentially at risk and you don’t always get an immediate answer to your questions and concerns.
For those who receive a diagnosis, cancer therapists then work with patients to treat and manage the psychological reactions that arise including elements of stress, anxiety, and depression. Fighting cancer can be a really isolating experience for a patient because the same medications and treatments that are helping their body fight the cancer are also causing them to feel exhausted and ill and experience a variety of difficult side effects. A cancer therapist’s familiarity with types of cancer and treatment options can be helpful and reassuring.
Once in remission, cancer therapists then help patients and their families work through a variety of emotions as they adapt to life after treatment. This helps patients process and reflect on their experiences, find a new routine, and move forward with optimism. With the drastic changes cancer and treatment bring about, it can take time to adjust to life outside of chemo treatments, hospital walls, and doctor’s appointments. Fear of cancer returning is a common source of stress and anxiety for patients and their families, and it can often feel like a particularly isolating experience. Working with a cancer therapist to navigate life in recovery can ease the mental burden that comes with all of the conflicting emotions and adjustments.
Support for Family Members
While a cancer diagnosis can cause an array of difficult experiences and emotions for the patient themselves, families are also heavily affected. Despite wanting to give their full support to their loved one, the treatment process is still extremely stressful and anxiety-provoking for both the family and the patient. Giving the patient some time to reflect on their diagnosis can help alleviate some of the initial stress. Family members are encouraged to be in communication with their loved ones’ social worker or medical team to stay in the loop with the treatment process. Meeting with a cancer therapist can give family members the ability to discuss their options for help as a caregiver and manage their own emotions and feelings towards the diagnosis.
Treatment for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Cancer Patients
Navigating the unpredictability of a cancer diagnosis and treatment can be an overwhelming experience. Working with a psycho-oncologist to manage stress, anxiety, and depression can improve a patients quality of life during treatment, increase their body’s ability to fight the cancer, and make them more likely to follow through with medical care during remission.
At Orange County Health Psychologists, we offer many different evidenced based approaches to psycho-oncology treatment including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based practices, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Emotion-Focused Therapy, family and couples therapy and behavioral interventions. Mindfulness based interventions are especially helpful for cancer patients because they focus on bringing attention to the present moment which can be very difficult with the uncertainty of a chronic illness or disease.
In whatever stage of the cancer experience you might find yourself, our providers are committed to helping you throughout the process. As our psycho-oncologist Dr. Alpa Bajaj states:
“Having your own space separate from your medical and support team to deal, understand, and cope with what is happening to you can be beneficial for your health. Fighting cancer can be a very isolating experience and having someone in your corner who understands not only the medical, but also the emotional aspects of cancer treatment, can make the process more healing and not feel as lonely.”
For more information on Psycho-Oncology Treatment, or to schedule an appointment, contact Orange County Health Psychologists by calling 949.528.6300 or emailing info@OCHealthPsych.com.
— Written by Kiyono McDaniel and Cassie Cipolla for Orange County Health Psychologists