Cancer Patients: How You Can Find Emotional Support

Coping is about much more than treating the physical

Daughter with Sick Mother

Contributor: Mona Gupta, MD, Palliative Medicine and Supportive Oncology, Solid Tumor

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A cancer diagnosis can bring up people’s worst fears. Many cancer patients have the idea that it is the end of life as they know it. There is so much focus on the physical aspects of treatment that they may not realize how important it is to address the emotional and mental aspects of cancer too.

Anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of the cancer patients I work with find emotional and mental healing from cancer a major challenge, even in stage 1 cancer. The sense of grieving begins the moment they find there is something wrong, such as a lump in their breast that later is confirmed by a medical team as a malignancy.

Anxiety and depression are two major issues that immediately surface. A cancer diagnosis often overwhelms people, and about 40 percent of them experience anxiety as a result. People will also deal with sadness, but we shouldn’t assume that they are depressed. We need to differentiate between true depression and normal grieving and allow people an opportunity to express and process how a cancer diagnosis has affected all aspects of their lives.

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Cancer hits a person in more than one arena; it affects families, future plans, finances and all practical aspects in life. That’s where an interdisciplinary team can help. They can help patients prioritize and if it’s appropriate, they can help prescribe medications for depression or anxiety.

I encourage people to find support in these three areas:

  • Mental/personal – This includes family, friends and social networks. Support groups that connect patients with cancer survivors or other cancer patients can help patients feel they are part of a community. This helps them avoid isolation, and they know they are not alone.
  • Interdisciplinary medical-psychosocial – This includes a team for counseling and answering questions, including physicians, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and clergy. These professionals can help patients focus on a better quality of life, including time with family, especially in cases where a cure isn’t likely. Spiritual support also helps bring meaning to people’s lives.
  • Physical – This includes any form of physical relief, such as exercise, diet, relaxation and guided imagery, deep breathing, meditation, yoga, reiki and other wellness activities. One study of an eight-week yoga exercise program for breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy found that yoga helped reduce fatigue.

Cancer patients really need emotional support. If you are dealing with cancer, it’s important not only lean on your doctor or oncologist for but to consider a broader network.

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