Impact of Cancer on Mental Health

Our mental health is as important as our physical health, and cancer can have a detrimental impact on both. Whether you have recently been diagnosed with cancer, have had the disease for many years, or are in remission, it is worth taking stock of your mental health regularly. If something feels off, there is no shame in seeking help; mental health treatment will not only improve your quality of life but also your chances of living longer!

Mental Health Issues Experienced by Cancer Patients

People with cancer have rates of major depressive disorder that are three times higher than the general population. The mental health effects of cancer may be less obvious than the physical ones, but they can also have deadly implications. In comparison to the general population, suicide rates amongst cancer patients are thought to be twice as high, although research shows that this gap is slowly closing; between 1999 and 2018, the suicide rate amongst the general population rose yearly by 1.7% while the suicide rate amongst cancer patients declined by 2.8% per year. This drop can likely be attributed to advances in supportive care.

Risk Factors

There are a number of risk factors that increase a cancer patient’s chance of developing depression and anxiety and committing suicide. These include the type of cancer (head and neck, lung, and pancreatic cancer patients are more likely to commit suicide due to the high morbidity rate associated with these cancers), gender (men are more likely to commit suicide than women), and age (the older a person with cancer, the higher their suicide risk). Socioeconomic factors and prior mental health issues also impact a person’s level of risk. 

Identifying Mental Health Issues Amongst Cancer Patients 

Cancer treatment or cancer itself can result in the onset of symptoms that are closely correlated with depression i.e. fatigue, lack of sleep, and decreased appetite. This can result in many mental health disorders amongst cancer patients going unnoticed until it is too late. Feelings of worthless, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide are very likely to be indicators of depression. If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from something more than just sadness, this online health test may help you determine the answer. 

Mental Health Treatment Options

In an ideal world, oncologists would diagnose depression and initiate treatment for their patients. While they are technically able to do this, cancer care teams are often more focused on the physical illness than the mental one, so the onus is likely to fall on you to take control of your mental health. 

If you are suffering from mental ill-health, there are a few steps you can take in your personal capacity to kickstart your journey of recovery. These include confiding in someone that you feel close to, doing as much exercise as possible, and meditating. However, sometimes we can’t solve our problems on our own and we need to enlist the help of a professional who can provide psychotherapy or antidepressant medication. Again, there is absolutely no shame in this; cancer is one of the most life-altering challenges a person can face, and there is no good reason to heighten your suffering by staying silent. 

Support Groups

Dealing with cancer can feel like a very lonely, isolating journey…until you find a community that resonates with you. There are a wide range of online and in-person cancer support groups that can provide support and a sense of belonging as you fight your cancer battles, some of which are listed below: 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group

CANSA Support Groups

Cancer Alliance Support Groups

CANSA Champions of Hope Facebook Group

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