When a patient finds out they have cancer, this can be a very upsetting time with a range of emotions. They may develop feelings of depression, anger, anxiety, or hopelessness, (among others) after their diagnosis. This is common in both patients and their loved ones after they learn of a debilitating illness in themselves or their family. It’s when a person still has the same feelings or negative thoughts for extended periods when things can get worrisome.
Depression, Mental Health, and Cancer
Now, more than before, it’s vital for patients to realize the importance of a positive mental state. Mental health is closely linked to physical health, and a body that is fighting cancer needs all the support available. Mental health is a person’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Someone suffering from depression can be impacted in all 3 of these facets, and it can begin to affect how they feel physically. This is because the mind tells the body what to do. When the brain experiences stress or crisis, it releases chemicals that tell the body how to feel and what to do. This happens with good feelings too. Depression has been linked to a 50 percent increase in cancer mortality rate, while on the opposite side, a 2012 Harvard University analysis has shown a correlation between a positive outlook, cardiovascular health, and reduced rate of disease metastasis.
What Depression Can Look Like
Another reason researchers think mental health can take a large toll on cancer patients, is because terminal ill patients who have depression are much less likely to seek the support they need. By definition, depression fills a person with feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or regret. Being weighed down by these feelings can make a person physically feel incapacitated. Depressed patients can be overcome with sudden and extreme feelings of fatigue or exhaustion that don’t go away. When someone, even without cancer, is overwhelmed with the barrage of negative emotions that can sometimes surround those who are depressed, they may literally feel that it’s impossible to do something once as simple as leaving their bed. Activities they once enjoyed start getting pushed aside or avoided, and they may even experience a wide range of mood swings (aggressiveness, hyperactivity) to further push their family and friends away. Loss of appetite, insomnia, thoughts or feelings of suicide are also symptoms of depression.
Coping Techniques for Depression
When cancer patients seek support for depression, they may find it easier to manage, however, not all coping techniques are effective to everyone.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
This technique helps patients control their feelings,
When patients communicate their feelings in a healthy way to family members or close friends, this can be very freeing. Sometimes letting out negative feelings or thoughts can lift a person’s mood and spirits. It helps if both parties also listen carefully to each other and offer mutual support.
It can be easy to underestimate the power of this technique. Firstly, when patient’s practice simple breathing exercises, they are breaking the negative train of thought they were initially on. Next, breathing changes heart rate which impacts blood flow and reduce negative feelings. One simple breathing technique the patient can try takes 4 steps:
- Take deep breaths from your diaphragm
- Hold it in for as many seconds as you can
- Repeat a couple more times
- Relax and let yourself feel it
When patients master breathing techniques, meditation is easier. This coping technique can help patients train their brain to focus for longer, and then apply that focus when negative feelings arise. Scientists have discovered that the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is hyperactive in people with depression. This method can be effective when patients learn to:
- Find a comfortable, quiet, and calm place to sit
- Set a time limit. Beginners can start at 10 minutes and work their way up
- Sit loosely cross-legged or kneel. Once stable, close your eyes and notice how your body is feeling
- Follow sensation of breath as you breathe in and out
- If your mind begins to wonder off, don’t feel bad, this happens. Try to bring it back by noticing it and returning back to breathing
- Try not to judge yourself or obsess over thoughts that may surface
- When you feel comfortable, look up and notice the sounds and activity happening around you. How does your body feel? Notice feelings, thoughts, and emotions.
While this may sound easy, true meditation takes practice. Try not to feel down on yourself if you can’t focus or want to quit at first.
Seeking Professional Support
Depression management can encompass seeking professional help like counseling or therapy. There are also support groups of varying kinds available to those who need it, in person, and online.
Psychiatrists and doctors may offer medications for patients to help with symptoms of depression. They may also recommend a combination of physical and mental therapies with medication.
Caregivers and Patient Depression
Caregivers should be able to recognize symptoms of depression in the cancer patients they take care of. This way they can call a medical professional or needed support when the time arises. Some things to look out for include:
- Continuous sad or empty mood day after day
- Avoidance of activities or people
- Sudden weight loss or gain
- Fatigue or constant feelings of tiredness
- Restless or unfocused
- Attempts or thoughts of suicide
- Mood swings
Patients will need support during this time. Some things caregivers can do to help are:
- Gently invite patient to discuss anything that’s bothering them. Don’t put pressure on them to talk, wait until they feel comfortable
- Don’t tell the patient to “cheer up” “get over it” or “be positive”.
- Mutually work out an arrangement for support
- Try to engage the patient in enjoyable activities
- Practice self-care and try to avoid burnout by spending time alone or doing fun things
- Seek support if burnout occurs
The caregiver should try to be gentle and understanding with the patient. They shouldn’t be forced to do anything they aren’t ready to do.
When to Call Someone
Contact your doctor or mental health professional if the following occur:
- Constant thoughts of suicide or death that don’t go away
- Unsafe behavior
- Loss of sleep and motivation for multiple days in a row
- Problems breathing, excessive sweating, and restlessness
The medical professional can provide medication, referrals, resources, and support. Reach out to them if depression becomes unmanageable.
American Cancer Society. (2020). Depression. Retrieved April 2020 from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/emotional-mood-changes/depression.html
Bradley University. (ND). How Mental Health Affects Physical Health. Retrieved on April 2021, from https://onlinedegrees.bradley.edu/blog/how-mental-health-affects-physical-health/
Cancer Care. Maintaining Good Mental Health When Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis. Retrieved April 2020 from https://www.cancercare.org/blog/maintaining-good-mental-health-when-coping-with-a-cancer-diagnosis?gclid=Cj0KCQjwvr6EBhDOARIsAPpqUPGRIJvh2XKd2BKAxXq_6oath4kcQuVeKuPiN-in09XhZKhFe3FSq6saAqweEALw_wcB
Mindful. (2021). How to Meditate. Retrieved April 2020 from https://www.mindful.org/how-to-meditate/