Coping with cancer

December 02, 2016
Coping with Cancer

For those with cancer, treatment is often about survival. However, it is imperative to maintain the highest quality of life possible during this difficult experience. Thirty-three percent of cancer patients experience serious psychological and cognitive distress. However, because of the lack of available resources, lack of providers who provide specialty care and ongoing stigma, less than 10 percent seek professional care. This is unfortunate since symptomatic management with medications, therapy and counseling can significantly reduce or eliminate the symptoms of depression, anxiety, fatigue and cognitive changes, improving the overall quality of life. 


If you are trying to decide if you need help handling your emotions, it is often helpful to know that you are not alone. There is no “normal” response to the stress of being diagnosed with, treated for, or surviving cancer. We all have different life experiences and challenges that affect how we respond to states of adversity, and the degree of medical illness can vary considerably from person to person.

When people first realize they may have cancer, they usually experience fear and anxiety as they wait for results of laboratory tests and imaging. When they receive a cancer diagnosis, many experience feelings of disbelief and denial. Following a new diagnosis of cancer, one often slowly begins to accept the diagnosis and may experience emotional turmoil that includes anxiety, depression, poor concentration, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping and an inability to complete tasks. Thoughts of dying may begin to dominate the person’s thoughts and persistent worries about the future and their families may begin to affect multiple spheres of their life. Once treatment begins many patients become more hopeful and experience a decrease in their anxiety because there is often a concrete and hopeful plan to treat their cancer.

Over the next few weeks and months, most patients will adjust to the emotions and changes that come with cancer treatment, recovery and survival. This period may be accompanied by new emotional crises if there are treatment side effects, body changes or disfigurements, or cancer recurrence.

These reactions are the most common or “usual” emotions experienced with those who have cancer. However, there are a wide variety of emotional reactions and any time one feels they need help, they should not hesitate to seek guidance and assistance.

When you may want to seek guidance

While periods of sadness, grief, fear and anxiety are common throughout the cancer experience, if you’re finding yourself unable to adjust to your diagnosis after weeks or months, you may be suffering from a serious psychological disorder that requires evaluation and treatment. Some signs that you may want to seek assistance include:

  • Having five or more symptoms of depression for two weeks or more, including: feelings of sadness or tearfulness, irritability or anger, loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, slowed thinking or problems with concentration, anxiety or restlessness, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, social isolation
  • Experiencing sustained anxiety that prevents you from functioning in your daily life and/or getting the cancer treatments you need
  • Denying your diagnosis to the point that you refuse to get treatment
  • Feeling unable to concentrate or function in daily life
  • Feeling “numb” or paralyzed, unable to make decisions or take action
  • Losing your motivation to go anywhere, do anything or interact with others
  • Experiencing multiple panic or anxiety attacks
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless or fixated on thought of death and dying
  • Having thoughts of ending your life or that you would be better off dying

If you have any emotional or psychological issue that you want to overcome but can’t, and it is affecting your quality of life or cancer treatment, please notify your cancer team. Ask for a referral to a mental health professional who can help you feel more in control and develop coping strategies that will support you during your cancer journey. Anxiety and depression can be severe and disabling by themselves. In combination with a cancer diagnosis, they can stand in the way of your treatment, survival and recovery. With the help of a professional, you have a two in three chance of eliminating the symptoms of a psychological disorder entirely in the course of a few months. Do not hesitate to seek help and give yourself every advantage you can in your fight against cancer.

For information about psychiatry or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Nejad, please call 206-215-2275


This article is from the Winter 2016 issue of Life to the Fullest, the newsletter from the Swedish Cancer Institute (SCI) dedicated to those with cancer, cancer survivors, and their family members and caregivers.

Topics: Cancer