Cancer survivors are an amazing group of people. I know because my Mom, like so many others, was a cancer survivor.
There are few diseases where the mind and body have to line up in parallel paths to offer a better prognosis. Having cancer distinctly affects one’s mental health and even the mental health of caregivers and other family members. No one should feel surprised that the diagnosis of the “Big C” will create anxiety, stress, fear and often depression in those who are diagnosed. What may be less understandable is how these mental health challenges affect one’s survival after diagnosis and treatment.
Research has shown that once depression is diagnosed there is a higher likelihood that the prognosis is more problematic. There are also studies in the world of research that point out that long term survivors have an increased likelihood of experiencing psychological stress over time. That is just common sense. Hence, it is clear that surviving cancer is more than just beating the physical side of a malignancy.
The number of cancer survivors has certainly increased over the years and is expected to continue to increase as we find more effective ways to screen for cancer. The number of cancer survivors increased by about 20 percent in just six years, to 11.7 million in 2007, the latest year for which figures were analyzed, from 9.8 million in 2001. So many people feel that as soon as the diagnosis is made, that it is a death sentence. However, as we know today, many cancers are treatable and that it is just as important for people who have had cancer not to assume that they will necessarily die early.
When one is diagnosed with cancer the resulting anxiety and stress is increased as a person is deluged with questions around their own family, social system, work concerns and what limitations to life may loom ahead. The uncertainty can create a withdrawal from the world and a fear that the cancer, even if in remission, will always come back. Cancer survivors who are not treating their mental health as diligently as they are treating their medical health run the risk of isolating and doing internal battle with many mew behavioral challenges they may never have experienced.
The Center for Disease Control even extends the definition of “cancer survivor” to friends of the
person with the disease. It seems that no one is immune to the effects of knowing someone with cancer. It has been written up in more research that caregivers and other family members are also more likely to experience an increase in anxiety and depression. The entire family system is behaviorally impacted by the diagnosis, almost like no other disease.
The American Cancer Association has an excellent way to be informed, empowered and energized whether you are a cancer survivor or a caregiver. But before you go there, understand there are some important behavioral steps to take if you are a survivor or have been touched by cancer as a caregiver.
The following list is an excellent short prescription to follow if you are a survivor or family member of a survivor. It was inspired by the Colon Cancer Foundation.
Acknowledge that it’s normal. This is not the time to “man up” or “be a hero”. There is no shame in admitting that you’re scared, overwhelmed, or need to talk to someone about what you’re going through. Facing cancer means facing our own mortality – a weighty proposition for even the “toughest” among us.
Tap into cancer survivor support groups. Contact your cancer treatment clinic and ask if they have support groups available. Most do. Some people actually like on-line groups better because you can use them anytime to post questions or comments, and you don’t have to feel embarrassed about asking “sensitive” questions.
Seek professional help. Ask your primary care provider for a referral to a mental health care specialist. You may even be able to find someone who specializes in helping people cope with life-threatening diseases. You can learn some tips and tricks for managing your anxiety and improve your quality of life measurably.
Don’t be afraid of medication. Unfortunately, in our culture, taking medications to manage depression often is viewed as “weak” or “self-indulgent”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Depression is a real medical issue and is caused by real changes in your brain chemistry. Nobody would tell a diabetic to just “think” their way out of high blood sugar levels. In the same way, you should not buy into the idea that if you just “try harder” you’ll feel better. Don’t buy into these outdated and untrue ideas about depression!
Keep in mind that this study does not conclusively prove cause and effect. It does not prove that being depressed caused people with cancer to die. So if you’re feeling depressed, don’t expect that this means you’re more likely to die. What the study does show is that if you have cancer, ignoring depression is a bad idea. And with all of the help that is available, there’s no reason to accept depression after cancer diagnosis as “normal”.
Find inspiration in the stories of others. Some people find it helpful to read books or essays by others who have gone through cancer. There is strength in numbers; sometimes simply knowing you’re not alone is what you need to cope at that moment.
When it comes to the quality of one’s survival, doctors and technicians need to be acutely aware of how their attitudes affect cancer patients and survivors. If you are suffering from compassion fatigue or burnout, get help. Take your oxygen first! Unfortunately, I still hear terrible, discouraging stories about how patients have been treated by some medical personnel; that a lack of compassion is still pervasive in our ranks. I’m reminded of the movie “The Doctor” with William Hurt, who played the essence of an unfeeling, uncompassionate physician, who has to become a cancer patient himself to understand the importance of his own humanity in his bedside manner.
I have a colleague who is a tongue cancer survivor of eight years. She swears by the support she received at a cancer support center that offered not only support groups but programming to treat the mind and spirit, too. She shared with me that a she had a real moment of clarity when in a Qi Gong treatment, the instructor told her that her body was not capable of distinguishing between a lifesaving surgery and a vicious attack. She also confided that her cancer journey was a spiritual one even though she still feels some effects of her treatment.
Whatever your experience or connection with cancer, your attitude toward it can go a long way toward determining your ability to not only survive, but to thrive.
By James D. Huysman, Psy.D., LCSW