From the moment you find out you have cancer, a wide range of emotions can wash over you. You might feel afraid, angry, sad or have some other difficult-to-name emotion. It’s normal to struggle, but if these emotions go unchecked, they can spiral into depression, anxiety or even post-traumatic stress disorder.
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How can you tell if you are coping well emotionally or not? Be aware of signs of deeper problems and know what to expect during treatment. These can help you take control of your mental health. And that, in turn, can have a positive effect on your cancer treatment.
If you need to talk to someone
If you think you have a mental health problem related to having cancer — or its treatment — there are professionally trained people who can help. Talk to your doctor and ask him or her to refer you to a psychiatrist or therapist. It’s important to ask for a mental health professional who specializes in working with cancer patients.
A psychiatrist will discuss your feelings and symptoms and suggest the best skills for coping. He or she can also help by prescribing antidepressants or medications for anxiety or to help you sleep.
A therapist will likely treat you with cognitive-behavioral therapy, a practice that helps you focus on the relationships among your thoughts, actions and emotions. It can work well to help you control depression and anxiety.
Watch for signs of serious depression
It’s normal to feel down during cancer treatment.
Your body is probably changing in unpleasant ways. Sometimes you’re not able to do the things you’re used to doing. You may have to cut back on your work hours or stop working altogether. Some of your relationships may feel strained.
All of these things can take a toll on your mental health and lead to low moods. But if you’re feeling persistently down, depression is a possible culprit.
Watch for these symptoms:
- Persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Loss of interest and enjoyment in usual activities
- Reduced self-esteem and confidence
- Feelings of guilt and unworthiness
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of suicide
Also, other depression symptoms — poor appetite, low energy and trouble sleeping — often go hand in hand with cancer treatment. But if your mood is persistently low and you feel hopeless, it’s a good idea to get help.
Don’t let anxiety rule your life
Nobody gets through cancer treatment without worry: Will I be OK? Can I keep up with my bills? Is my family able to handle this? Will my life ever go back to normal?
You may find, however, that your worry has tipped over into full-blown anxiety. And that makes a bad situation even worse.
If you are frequently worried or have feelings of panic and can’t control worrying thoughts, you may have anxiety. Anxiety can also make you feel restless, keyed up or on edge even though you might also easily feel fatigued.
Other symptoms include:
- Difficulty concentrating or your mind going blank
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep
You may also experience panic attacks, with increased heart rate, racing thoughts, hyperventilation, dizziness or wooziness, sweating and feelings of impending doom. You should seek help to keep these overwhelming feelings and worries in check.
How post-traumatic stress disorder fits in
Most people associate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with combat veterans. But you can develop PTSD after any kind of trauma, including medical trauma. If you’ve completed cancer treatment but you’re still feeling haunted by the experience, PTSD could be the reason why.
PTSD can cause you to have intrusive thoughts or memories of the traumatic event — the thoughts pop up out of nowhere whether you want to think about them or not. You might have nightmares about the event or flashbacks — feeling that you’re re-experiencing the event. You also might have difficulty falling or staying asleep.
As a result, you might avoid thoughts, feelings, people or situations connected to the event or have memory problems related to it.
Watch for these other symptoms:
- Being stuck in severe emotions related to the trauma (e.g., horror, shame, sadness)
- Severely reduced interest in pre-trauma activities
- Feeling detached, isolated or disconnected from other people
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability, increased temper or anger
- Hypervigilance — feeling like you’re always on guard
For PTSD, you may wish to find a therapist trained in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which is a special type of therapy designed to treat trauma.
Above all, don’t just let an emotional roller coaster take over your life. Cancer treatment is hard enough — don’t let untreated mental health problems make it even harder.