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Mental Health and Cancer

Mental Health and Cancer

Patients who are diagnosed with cancer have an increased risk of developing a mental health condition, or having an existing condition get worse. In fact, one-third of patients treated for cancer in hospitals have a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression (Mental Health America). And it’s no wonder. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is scary.

Because mental health issues are common with cancer diagnosis and treatment, SCCA has a psychiatry and social work team that is working on ways to screen all patients for a variety of factors:

  • Emotional concerns, such as loneliness, loss of interest and suicidal thoughts.
  • Social concerns, such as changes in relationships with friends and family.
  • Practical concerns, such as worries about finances, childcare or food security.
  • Physical concerns, such as changes in sexual activity or sleep.
  • Spiritual concerns, such as losing a sense of meaning or thoughts about death.

The most common mental health conditions patients might experience when diagnosed with cancer are depression, anxiety or fear, adjustment disorder (difficulty adjusting to a life change) and feelings of grief and loss. Some patients may also be irritable, especially with loved ones. Changes in the patient’s role in the household can be hard to adjust to. Many patients feel vulnerable and uncomfortable being in a position requiring care.

Patients may find it helpful to talk to their doctor, a trusted loved one or a social worker about their experiences around cancer. The more patients share, the more their team can develop a tailored approach to help. Social workers regularly talk with the psychiatry team to make sure patients are getting the counseling, medication, or other resources they need. It’s part of SCCA’s holistic approach to care.

Elizabeth Darlington, LICSW, gives patients a few suggestions to help with feelings of anxiety and depression. “One thing we suggest is called ‘behavioral activation.’ Depression can create a vicious cycle. A patient who isn’t feeling well might put off a walk until they feel better, for example, even though that walk might make them feel better. Inactivity can lead to increased depression, which in turn can lead to further inactivity. Identifying anything at all they can do and doing it can be very helpful, even if it’s a small thing.

“In addition, self-care is so important,” adds Darlington. “Be gentle with yourself, allow yourself to rest and receive help, and do something that fills you with joy, like listening to music or talking with a loved one. Caregivers can benefit from this, too.”

Patients who are feeling anxious or depressed can reach out to a member of their care team, such as a nurse or social worker. They will provide resources or elevate the patient’s case to the psychiatry team.

“In this new age of COVID-19, there seems to be a greater collective understanding of the importance of mental health to a person’s overall well-being,” says Darlington. “Acknowledging that we all need help with coping is extremely healthy. Undergoing cancer treatment is not easy for anyone, and we want to know how we can best support you so that you can feel better. Treating a mental health issue can even improve your outcome odds (National Cancer Institute)."

If you are having a mental health crisis, such as thoughts of imminent suicide, please call the King County crisis line at 866-427-4747 or the Suicide Prevention lifeline at 800-273-TALK for free, confidential support, 24 hours a day.