Look after your mental health: How to cope with cancer

Published: 09 Oct 2019

When someone learns they have cancer it’s an instant shock to the system - they are likely to experience a whole raft of emotional symptoms including anxiety, depression, and sleeping problems.  Many people may think this is a “normal” response and try to carry on.  Whilst these symptoms are an expected response - there is nothing normal about cancer and therefore there’s nothing normal about the psychological effects. 

A study by the Mental Health Foundation conducted a study that showed that one in three people with cancer will experience a mental health problem such as depression or anxiety disorders before, during or after treatment.  They also found that mental health problems often arise at the very end of cancer treatment – a time when patients are expected to recover and get on with life, but with little or no emotional support at hand.

World Mental Health Day is on Thursday 10th October. This is such an important issue, especially for cancer patients. So, we asked the experts for their advice on what people can do to help manage their emotional response.

  1. The first shock is often the worst! The uncertainty that comes with a new cancer diagnosis often fades as you and your family come to understand more about the disease, the treatment and how you can better cope
  2. Get yourself organised. Many people say that cancer makes them feel out of control. Try to counter this feeling by becoming as organised as possible. Find out what you can from reputable sources about the cancer and its treatment, file your test results, keep a diary, take notes in meetings, write up questions you want to ask in advance of medical appointments, understand your options and update your affairs - not because your anticipating the worst, but because you’ll feel on top of things. 
  3. Focus on the things you can do rather than dwelling on the things you can’t. Reward yourself for the things you’ve achieved, rather than reprimanding yourself for the things you haven’t
  4. Whatever you do don’t bottle things up. If fear or uncertainty is interfering with your daily life, talk to your doctor about counselling and support programs
  5. Some people with cancer are in denial. They don’t believe or accept their diagnosis. In the short term this can be helpful because it gives people more time to adjust to the news. But it can become a problem if it goes on for several weeks or even months because it stops them getting treatment they need.  If this is you, or you know someone in denial and gentle persuasion isn’t working, consider getting in touch with a social worker or counsellor
  6. Take regular exercise. Even a walk around the park can stop you feeling angry and reduce feelings of depression or anxiety.  It can also help to stop you feeling so tired and improve your sleep. Read our blog Top tips for exercising during chemotherapy
  7. Don’t isolate yourself. Don’t cut yourself off from friends, explain how you’re feeling to your family.  Talk through your anxieties. But also, take time out with the people you love, allow yourself to forget you have cancer, take a day trip to the sea, go to the theatre, try a new restaurant or simply do a jigsaw and a chat with friends. And join the Penguin Facebook Chemotherapy Support Group and get in touch with 6,000 members across the world, all fighting cancer just like you
  8. Find your spiritual self.  Spirituality and religion can be important to your mental well-being if you have cancer, enabling you to better cope with the disease. People who are already religious often become more religious whereas others who were not religious sometimes seek spirituality and a connection to a power outside themselves after the diagnosis.  If you find that connection it can have a positive impact on your mental health. Read our blog How meditation can help you cope with a cancer diagnosis

If you’re fighting cancer and have found a way that helps you cope emotionally, or need some extra support of your own, why not connect and share with over 6,000 active members in the Facebook Chemotherapy Support Group.

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