Cancer can have a profound impact on mental health. Here are ways to feel your best emotionally and mentally after a cancer diagnosis.
By Michelle Dailey, Licensed Family Therapist for
Oncology, Nuvance Health
Chances are cancer has affected you or someone you know. The American Cancer Society estimates nearly 17 million cancer survivors are alive in the United States today, and the number will continue to increase.
That means millions of people have managed through a cancer diagnosis, which can have a profound impact on mental health.
Here are four ways to optimize your mental health during cancer survivorship — whether you are a day, year or 10 years post active cancer treatment or living with cancer.
One: Set realistic expectations and give yourself a break.
You may feel like you should resume normal activities soon after completing active cancer treatment. You may also feel like you should live differently and try new things.
Try to avoid the “shoulds” and trust yourself to do what feels right for you.
Getting through cancer treatment is a big deal that requires ongoing emotional and physical strength. Go easy on yourself after active cancer treatment ends — you already went through a lot.
It is okay to resume normal activities at your own pace. Set realistic expectations to avoid feeling overwhelmed or like you failed.
It is also okay if your priorities changed; this is common because many people have more gratitude, patience and appreciation for life after going through cancer.
If things you did before cancer do not bring you joy, give you purpose or have meaning anymore, it is okay to let them go. If you feel adventurous and want to try new things, go for it. If quietly reading a book or meditating gives you peace, then that is your calling.
Also, give yourself a break about how you feel. You may feel anxious, sad, guilty, fearful, angry and frustrated about having cancer and going through treatment, which is common. Let yourself feel all the emotions and reflect on your experience. Find someone to talk with — whether a trusted family member or friend, support group or professional therapist — which is a necessary part of re-grounding yourself.
Two: Manage fear of cancer recurrence or spreading.
It is common for people to feel anxious after completing active cancer treatment, especially about the cancer coming back. For people with chronic cancer, it is common to worry about the cancer spreading.
Worrying about a cancer recurrence or it spreading is completely valid and understandable. Here are ways to manage this anxiety:
- Talk with your doctor to help you identify and differentiate normal physical feelings from signs you should get something checked.
- Follow your care plan, which may include maintenance therapy, screenings and wellness exams.
- Eat healthy, exercise regularly and get adequate sleep to maintain your overall well-being.
- Although it can be difficult, live in the present rather than fret about the future. Find comfort in feeling good in the present, rather than anxious about how you might feel in the future.
If worrying about cancer prevents you from participating in daily activities or you are feeling depressed, it is very important to talk with your doctor, or a professional therapist or social worker at your cancer center to explore coping strategies.
Three: Find ways to cope with change from cancer.
Cancer can affect how you feel, look and your relationships. Yet, it is possible to manage these changes by how you react to them.
Allow yourself time to accept and adapt to changes in your body that may have resulted from cancer treatment. If you can, find bright spots about yourself to highlight. Also, try to have self-compassion and consider what you would tell a family member or friend if they were feeling down about their body image.
Loss of connections
“Who is looking out for me now?” is a common question people have after active treatment ends. Many people miss the steady support from cancer center staff that they had during their frequent visits for treatment. Know that the relationships you forged with your cancer care team during active treatment are still there. For example at Nuvance Health, we help people transition from patient to survivor — and thrivor — with continued access to resources and support services.
Family and friends may rejoice with you when active treatment ends. They may also be eager for everything to return to normal; however, you may feel anything but normal. Let your support system know you need time to adjust and re-integrate into mainstream life to manage everyone’s expectations.
Returning to work after active cancer treatment may feel daunting if you were absent for a while. It is important to set reasonable expectations for yourself and employer, and develop a plan for how you will re-enter the workplace. Options such as returning part-time or a hybrid model to work remotely and in the office may work well for everyone.
Four: Know where to get help.
Know that you are not alone during cancer survivorship.
Qualified mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists, psychologists or therapists provide coping strategies like mindfulness techniques to help you stay grounded in the present and manage anxiety, fears and uncertainty. They can also help you tap into your inner resources, resilience and strengths. Finally, they can help validate your experience and normalize your emotional response to cancer-related distress.
Support groups are a place to share challenges and concerns with others going through a similar experience. Ask your doctor, or therapist or social worker at your cancer center about support groups.
The bottom line: Getting through active cancer treatment is a major milestone. Many feelings from glee to uncertainty may linger during cancer survivorship. Take time to reflect on your experience and then live your life however brings you comfort and joy. Set realistic expectations with yourself, family, friends and colleagues, find ways to manage cancer-related changes and worries, and know where to find guidance and support.