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Mental Health in the Cancer Journey

What Is Mental Health?

Good mental health and supportive relationships are an important part of navigating the cancer journey. Mental health refers to psychological, emotional, and social well-being. It includes how we feel, think, act, and relate to other people.

Having good mental health can improve medical outcomes and quality of life for both patient and family.

Ways Better Mental Health Supports Medical Outcomes:

  • Coping with procedures and daily medical needs
  • Adherence to medication and other therapies
  • Managing stress
  • Understanding information and making decisions
  • Supporting healthy habits like sleep, nutrition, and physical activity

For families facing childhood cancer, there are many challenges that can negatively impact mental health. These challenges include:

  • Coping with physical symptoms
  • Worry about the future
  • Stress of care decisions
  • Change in daily routine
  • Financial concerns
  • Separation from friends and family
  • Managing life outside of cancer

Ups and downs in mental health during cancer are expected. During serious illness, there will be negative thoughts and emotions. Feelings of stress, worry, and sadness are normal responses to a very abnormal situation. 

Lows can come at different times for different people, and struggles can continue even after recovery from cancer. Sometimes, these feelings are symptoms of a more serious problem like anxiety or depression. But, more often, these are normal reactions to a difficult time.

Healthy adjustment is a process. Coping involves struggle and finding ways to regroup and move forward. It can be easy to neglect mental health when the focus is on immediate medical needs. But, even patients and families who are coping well can benefit from resources to support mental health as they face the challenges of cancer.

Support for mental health can come from a variety of sources, including:

  1. Members of your care team can tell you about specific services that are available. Support care includes psychology, child life, art therapy, music therapy, and social work. Your doctors and nurses can help you know what is normal and when feelings or behaviors may indicate a more serious mental health issue like anxiety or depression. They can also help identify when mental health concerns may be due to a physical problem or medication.

  2. It can help to know that someone else is going through—or has gone through—the same thing. Peer support may be found in day to day interactions or through more structured support groups and mentoring programs.

  3. Maintaining connections to home can be hard during treatment, but keeping in touch with friends and family is important. These relationships help give a sense of normalcy. They offer a support network that will continue after treatment ends. Resources are available to help families find ways to stay connected. Talking to a mental health professional about relationships and communication can also help.

  4. Faith-based resources are an important source of support for many families. They can offer hope and strength, promoting resilience and endurance. Spiritual care can also help patients and families as they struggle with questions that don’t have a simple answer.

  5. Mental health professionals include psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers. These providers are trained to help people with a wide range of mental health concerns. Psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression are not uncommon in patients and caregivers. And, help is available. However, a mental health professional can also help when there are not major concerns.

    A mental health professional can be:

    • A safe place to talk about things that make you scared, angry, or embarrassed.
    • Someone to listen without judging you; someone who won’t be shocked or sad when you talk about uncomfortable issues.
    • A resource to help family members communicate and understand one another better.
    • A different perspective to help you deal with problems.
    • An encourager to help you get through the hard times.

There may be days when you feel like you have it together pretty well. There may be days when you feel like you can’t handle one more thing. Seeking help for mental health does not mean something is wrong with you. Support for mental health provides strength to help you fight your cancer battle and achieve your goals.


Reviewed: June 2018

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