How Can Cancer Treatment Side Effects Impact Mental Wellness

Having cancer brings about much more than physical concerns. For many people, mental health struggles can start at any time—after diagnosis, during treatment, or even after finishing the treatment. Experiences can vary depending on your circumstances and the type of cancer you have.

According to Mental Health America, it is estimated that a third of people treated for cancer in hospitals have a common mental health condition and that the rates of major depressive order among cancer patients are three times higher than the general population.

Most of the time, mental struggles like anxiety and depression are heightened during the course of treatment because the treatment itself may directly cause these mental conditions. For example, the chemotherapy side effect called “chemo brain” causes depression alongside fatigue, mental fogging, and other cognitive impairments. It is thus important that cancer patients and their loved ones are aware of how cancer treatment side effects impact their mental wellness and how to cope with them.


Common cancer treatment side effects

Side effects occur when the person’s healthy cells are damaged during the treatment. They may vary from person to person and depending on the type of treatment and medications used. The commonly experienced side effects are:

  • Neutropenia – a decrease in the number of white blood cells, which makes the body more prone to infections
  • Alopecia – commonly known as hair loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • “Chemo brain” – trouble concentrating and remembering things
  • Pain
  • Blood clots
  • Fatigue


How do these side effects affect one’s mental health?

Many of those who are undergoing treatment for their cancer may experience side effects that normally go away after a while. However, for some, the side effects may bring new challenges such as having to stop working or doing house chores. These major life-changing experiences may affect how you feel or see yourself.

Some of the common feelings can be uncertainty, frustration, lack of confidence or feeling useless, sadness, hopelessness, isolation, and emptiness. These feelings, when not addressed properly, may lead to mental health problems like anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder, and dissociation. To learn more about these mental health issues related to cancer, red Cancer and Mental Health Issues.

For those with the metastatic form of the disease, possible mental health issues may be more apparent because symptoms and treatment side effects may be more severe. For example, metastatic breast cancer patients report intense pain as a common symptom. Sometimes, an opioid medication may be prescribed for pain management, but opioids often lead to other physical problems like nausea.

In a study published in Journal of Patient Experience, the researchers investigated the associations of pain and nausea with depression and anxiety among women with metastatic breast cancer. They found out that the pain and nausea experienced by the patients interfere with their social life, which then leads to anxiety and depression over time.

Being able to attend to daily tasks and responsibilities, doing activities previously enjoyed, and socializing are important to one’s overall mental wellness. If a person is having trouble doing physical work and leisure activities due to treatment side effects, he or she is more likely to experience mental health issues.

In the study, the reverse of this was found true for patients who were more engaged in social activities. They’ve shown better overall psychological health and less severe anxiety and depression.


How to cope with them

People with depression might experience worse cancer-related outcomes. They are the ones who follow treatment plans less or take preventive measures less carefully. For example, they may less likely engage in exercise or other physical activities, more likely to drink more alcohol, or miss therapy treatments. It is therefore important to learn about ways how to cope with mental struggles before they become serious or worse. Some of these include:

  • Start with a self-screening

Before seeking a mental health specialist, taking an online mental health screening can be the first step to coping with your mental health, especially if you are scared to talk to a mental health professional.

  • Talk to a professional

If you suspect yourself experiencing a mental health disorder while undergoing cancer treatment, your healthcare provider may provide you with information on physical and emotional health. Being aware of your mental health needs allows you to take control of it better. They may also be able to refer you to a counselor or mental health expert who can facilitate the screening.

Early detection and intervention after screening allow for better outcomes. If the mental health issue is treated early, long-term disability and suffering may be avoided.

  • Join a support group

Cancer Support Community talks about connecting with others to cope. Meeting others going through similar experiences can help. In support groups facilitated by trained professionals, patients have a safer environment to share their experiences with others and engage socially. Since they get first-hand experience advice on how others have lived and managed the physical side effects of cancer and their treatment, they feel less lonely and feel more heard.

For those who cannot join support groups, other options include online discussion forums, counseling, and peer mentorship.

  • Keep a journal

Tracking your emotions on a daily basis serves as a tool to reflect on your feelings. It also aids your healthcare provider to monitor your symptoms and give you the right advice. 

  • Live in the present

Finding ways to feel focused on the present helps avoid worrying about the future. Sometimes, prayer and spiritual practices, mindfulness exercises, and meditation can help deal with it.

  • Make time for exercise

Cancer patients may have varying abilities to participate in different levels of physical activities, depending on the treatment regimen and the type of cancer they have. Many studies show that exercise can help manage mental health—by triggering a positive mood, lowering stress rates, and improving self-esteem.


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