Published on June 14, 2021

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Surviving Cancer: Boosting and Protecting your Mental Health

Completing cancer treatment. Surviving cancer. These are milestones meant to be celebrated. Yet, many cancer survivors feel a wide range of emotions: Joy, relief, happiness. And sometimes fear, anxiety and stress. In fact, research has found that cancer survivors are more likely to experience mental health issues compared to adults without cancer.

There are many factors that can affect your mental health after treatment- fear of recurrence, long-term health issues, finances, changes in your body and the feeling of loss when you don’t see your healthcare providers after seeing them so often during treatment. Manish Agrawal, MD, medical director at the Shady Grove Adventist Aquilino Cancer Center, says “Dealing with a cancer diagnosis and all that comes after doesn’t just go away once treatment is over. Supporting the mental and emotional needs of patients recovering is just as important as treating their physical health.”

If you’re struggling with anxiety, stress or depression, know that you are not alone. Here are a few steps you can take to help boost (and protect) your mental health.

Acknowledge How You Feel

The first step in improving your mood is being honest (with yourself and others) about each of the emotions you may be experiencing. Remember, you’ve gone through an extraordinarily challenging time. Every feeling and thought you have is valid. And when you admit that you may be experiencing less-than-pleasant emotions, you can take the steps you need to get help and feel better.

Talk to Someone

Once you’re willing to admit that you’re experiencing a wide range of emotions, it’s important to share that with someone you trust. Ask a good friend to go for a walk. Sit down with a loved one and a cup of coffee. Talk to your doctor or care team. Your care team can refer you to a mental health professional – one who has experience working with cancer survivors. Dr. Agrawal shares that there are special treatments and support just for you that can help.

Take Care of Yourself

Study after study proves the importance of taking care of yourself – your body and spirit – to support your mental health:

  • Just 20 minutes of exercise can boost the chemicals in your brain and help combat anxiety or depression.
  • A healthy diet can help improve your mood and even certain foods (like nuts, dark chocolate and yogurt) may help reduce anxiety.
  • Hobbies can also help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

So, what does this mean for you? It means that taking care of yourself should be a priority, even after cancer treatments conclude. Here are a few simple tips to help make self-care happen:

  • Put time on your calendar. Set a reminder 15 minutes before your scheduled self-care time so you can wrap up what you’re doing and get ready to shift gears – to a hobby, exercise or even just quiet time to read a book.
  • Invest in your wellness. Today, it seems like there’s an app or service for just about anything. Consider hiring out household chores (shopping, cleaning, mowing the grass) that keep you from spending time where you want to. Or, sign up for a meal-kit delivery that will send healthy, fresh meals to your home that you just need to prep and cook.
  • Sign up for a gym or fitness class. Sometimes, it’s easier to get out the door when you know a fun class is coming up. A gym membership can also make it easier to work out when you have convenient access to the equipment you need to help meet your fitness goals. Some cancer centers, like the Aquilino Cancer Center, have on-site and virtual classes where you can find customized classes.
  • Invite a friend. Ask a friend to meet you for a daily (or even weekly) walk through the neighborhood. Use the time to catch up, foster your social connections and get your heart pumping while enjoying the fresh air.
  • Share your progress. Let your friends or family members know about your health goals (mental and physical ones). Keep them up to date on your progress and let them know an encouraging word is always appreciated.

Cancer Survivors and PTSD: Know When to Get Help

Sometimes, feelings of stress and anxiety run a little deeper than just temporary moods or struggles. Cancer survivors are, in fact, at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is most often attributed to “big T” traumas like serving in a war, sexual or physical assault, or experiencing a sudden, serious injury. However, the reality is that PTSD can be triggered by experiencing or witnessing a frightening or life-threatening situation – which includes being diagnosed with cancer.

One study even found that 1 in 4 women diagnosed with breast cancer will experience PTSD.

If your feelings of fear, stress and anxiety don’t get better after a few months or are interfering with your daily activities, it may be time to get help from a professional. Symptoms of PTSD also include:

  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Avoiding places that trigger bad memories
  • Strong feelings of guilt, hopelessness or shame
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities or relationships

If you are struggling with your mental health or have questions about how to cope – for you or a loved one – please talk with your doctor. There are many resources out there, including mental health professionals and other support services that help guide individuals on their cancer journey – from diagnosis to treatment and, of course, survivorship.

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