What Cancer Survivors Should Know About Their Mental Health

Posted on by DCPC

By Natasha Buchanan Lunsford, PhD

Photo of a woman talking to her doctor
Sharing how you’re feeling mentally is just as important as sharing how you feel physically. Talk to your health care provider.

It’s normal to feel worried, sad, afraid, or even angry after being diagnosed with cancer. Some treatments for cancer also can affect your feelings or make it hard for you to concentrate or remember things.

Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, now is a good time to understand that mental health care is as important as caring for your physical health during and after cancer treatment.

Chemo Brain Is Real!

You may have heard about “chemo brain.” Chemo brain describes problems with thinking (cognition, memory, attention) that may occur as a result of receiving chemotherapy to treat cancer. These concerns may affect patients during or after cancer treatments. Emotional and mental health problems that survivors may face—such as depression, anxiety, stress, and trouble sleeping—can all contribute to this and make thinking and learning harder. You could have difficulty learning new facts or skills, concentrating, or remembering things during and after treatment.

It’s Important to Talk About It—Even When It’s Hard

You may feel like it’s more difficult to talk about mental health problems, or you may feel uncomfortable talking about your struggles. Maybe it’s because your family members or friends don’t talk about mental health, your cultural beliefs don’t support having mental health discussions, or you feel you should be “strong” or “brave” and keep it to yourself. Nobody is wrong for feeling one way or another, but it’s important to understand that sharing how you’re feeling mentally is just as important as sharing how you feel physically. Talk to your health care provider about how you are feeling emotionally. You may also find that support groups for cancer survivors can be helpful places where you can talk to other people with similar experiences.

Be Patient—Getting Back to “Normal” May Take Time

You may be relieved after your cancer treatment is finished, feel empowered, or have a new set of goals that you are ready to pursue. But you may also worry about life after cancer. It may take time before you are able to do some of the things you did before at work, at home, or in daily life. You may depend on other people for help more than you are used to, and you may worry about money and about your cancer coming back. If you experience these things, be patient about getting back to feeling “normal.” Be open-minded about what your “new normal” looks like—and talk to someone about it.

You Can Do Something About It…

Talk to your health care team about how you feel—not just physically, but also mentally—before, during, and after treatment. They can refer you to health care providers who can help you manage these changes. Talking to experts about ways you can adjust is very important, because mental health problems can get worse if they are ignored.

…And So Can Your Health Care Team

Your care team can assess and monitor changes in your mental health and, when indicated, link you with mental health professionals who can address concerns through talk therapy, relaxation interventions, medication, and referrals to online or in-person groups with people who may have similar experiences as you, so you know you’re not alone in going through this. Your team can also give you tips for things that might improve your mental health, like diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep.

Together, your physical and mental health care teams can help keep you as healthy as possible during this time of uncertainty and change.

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29 comments on “What Cancer Survivors Should Know About Their Mental Health”

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    This is a personal topic to me as I lost my grandmother to cancer in 2015. I know all too well about cancer and it not only affects the mental health of the patient but also affects the mental health of the family. Many family members become depressed or anxious at the thought of loosing their loved one. I believe that the cancer centers should refer patients for psychological evaluations post diagnosis. There needs to be a policy set in place for this to be a procedure post cancer diagnosis.

    Some do, but really it’s it often worth it. There hasn’t been a been in the last 2 years I’ve had any peace. A single day where I have said gee I’m so glad I went through all the poisoning all the surgeries. There won’t be a single day where I won’t worry about it coming back. The only good thing is, while everyone else my age gets to think about being parents and saving for retirement, at least I know I’ll never have to worry about either. As cancer took both possibilities.

    While I’m sorry for your loss, I can’t help but feel your grandmother was the lucky one. The one thing most “loved one” don’t get is they want you to go on for them despite the stress, anxiety, the scars (mental and physical), and the fear that accompany every single day following. Every day that passes you understand more and more why many “survivors” commit suicide. Surviving is not living.


    I am a survivor too and understand the long lasting consequences of cancer that are often overlooked, especially those who received chemo prior to having children. I struggle with that myself. I told my oncologist about it and he referred me to a psychologist. It was covered by insurance because it is cancer related. Please do the same. There is no shame in getting help, but only you can do it for yourself.

    Yes. I agree with your words. I’m so tired of people implying that I am sooo lucky. Lucky? I change and shower in the dark and haven’t looked in a mirror since the day after the mastectomy. Eight years of luck, huh?

    I empathize with all who have experienced cancer. What I learned through my experience is that when someone receives a diagnosis of cancer, it isn’t just the person diagnosed, but all of those around them who receive the diagnosis. In many ways, I regret having survived.
    I am 17 years post brain cancer treatment, which included a craniotomy, 6000 rads of radiation, and 12 months of temadar (chemotherapy). While I have enjoyed surpassing the 3-5 years of survival I was told to expect, I have also endured loss of both of my parents, divorce, job loss, financial crisis. My ability to cope and manage stress has been diminished to the point of debilitation. I do not enjoy life, I am angry, isolated, disconnected from everything I once cared about and I can’t seem to find any viable help in order to recover from the above mentioned challenges. What brought me here was more of an attempt to find some empirical research on the long term effects of radiation on the brain. As I stated above, I had 6000 rads of radiation to my brain, not to mention to chemo. While it was highly focused to the area in which my tumor was removed, I feel a decline in my mental health status and it seems to be accelerating at a pace that is alarming. If anyone has any knowledge of resource material out there, I would be grateful if you shared this information.

    I had radiation for ALL.. I too have noticed some cognitive decline post radiation/chemo. Radiation tends to cause that I suppose. I am sorry about the things that you had to endure. Exercise (running, stretches, weights) , meditation (or simply following your breath), supplements have been of help. I had a low vitamin b12 level that was making it worse. I am also trying to practice gratitude to focus on the good things to keep it going.

    Not to take away from Cancer survivor real stories incl myself…why is there soo much emphasis on Cancer etc? With any illness there will be uncertainty and possible loss of life but reality is we all will have loss of life at some point. Embrace the illness, accept, do your best…god will do the rest.

    Have you ever had cancer? Do you know what’s it like to face death then get poisoned as nd then try to live a normal life it does something to you I cant put it into words but it does something I just fishined cancer treatment and I should be so happy great but its hell and I’m so out of control and just deterating mentally so so fast I dont know why or what but I know I was not like this at all before you watch everything slip away and you cant do anything or dont know what to do I hate myself so much and each day I do something I wouldn’t normally do a screw more up who knows

    You wrote this a long time ago and I’m not sure if you’ll see my reply. But the reason I looked this up is because I live in a building with a cancer survivor who has basically lost his mind. He used to be a nice, well behaved man and has had a complete, total personality change. Attacks other tenants’ doors, screams irrationally, goes on insane rampages…etc. The police have been called many times. We are all trying to deal with this with compassion, but he is escalating and it is a dangerous situation. He had chemotherapy and I believe that is what caused all this. It possibly destroyed his endocrine system. The landlord offered to arrange psychiatric help, but he refused. So anyway, the reason people are focused on cancer and mental health is due to the sometimes devastating and lasting effects of the treatment that saves their lives.

    I want you all to know you are NOT alone. I have cancer and I sometimes wonder if something has happened to me mentally during 35 rounds of chemo and now on a chemo pill and I find myself not dealing with issues as small as doing dishes (but I do them). I find myself putting on a happy face for others but wondering what is going to happen to me (selfish I know especially with all the family help I have had). I just want you to know your not alone these are some of the struggles I go threw and I hope any positive you have stays with you as long as it can. I have hills in front of me and they scare me however, I am doing my best.

    My daughter is a nurse. She and her husband feel that now that I am in remission, I need to get on with life and quit talking about it. They feel I am taking to strangers for sympathy. No I am because of the looks I get when people look at all the facial and neck scars. I can no longer eat certain foods, yet my daughter thinks I’m just using my cancer for an excuse. I have been in remission since December 2019. I had stage II mouth cancer and then 5 months later stage III esophagus and lymph node cancer and had 30dats straight radiation treatments. On my last visit to see them, she put me on a bedtime schedule. I was caught having a lamp on one night cause no matter how hard I tried I could not fall asleep. She has made me leave my phone on the kitchen counter before going to bed. I do not get on social media when I cannot sleep. I try to do memory games to keep my brain from not remembering things. she set me on a medication schedule as she does her children. I have had 27 throat surgery’s (EDG) to enlarge my throat so I can swallow. Yet she feels again I using the cancer for an excuse. Now my Surgeon has me scheduled between every 2 to 4 weeks fir my throat surgery(EDG) My daughter said she has never ever heard that a person that is In remission can’t sleep normal. Also my lack of memory is just my way of getting attention. I was on a feeding tube for nine months. The doctors said it would take quit a long time to get back to being able to eat different foods. Salt and spices actually causes pain in my mouth and throat. Yet again I’m told I’m looking for attention. But when I ask the server about spices on the food so I know what to order, I am looking for attention again. I don’t say much to people other than what I need to say. I usually always end saying it is all good because God has it all under control.
    So now when I want to visit my grandsons, I am getting severe anxiety and spend the whole time scared to the point of being sick I will say the wrong thing. I have read about the memory, sleeping and eating issues others have had. But she as a nurse knows that these things are not true. It gets even worse with her is I was to fall asleep in the afternoon or eve get tired. She thinks I should be back to normal now the cancer is in remission. I’m I crazy and making stuff up? Looking for sympathy???

    Stop seeing your daughter! I feel people who have not having cancer don’t understand.
    My son would say at every biopsy keep me posted and continued to cause me stress. I had to say good bye. I feel helpless a lot of time myself. I have family that does love me but I am no longer me!
    I am a complete stranger!
    Let your daughter go!!

    Oh my goodness your post has me angry and sad at the same time. I am so sorry your daughter is treating you this way. My husband has a stage 4 GIST sarcoma and almost died after losing 70 lbs in less than a year and eventually losing so much blood due to the bleeding tumor he had a series of very dangerous seizures. I thank God every day for bringing him through and even stopping the spread 🙏🏼 He experienced so many different forms of pain and discomfort. I just wanted to bubble wrap him and sit by his side waiting to see if there is anything he wanted or needed. And we have had an extremely volatile 30 year marriage that leaves me hurt and infuriated with him on a very regular basis! It has been 2 1/2 years since his diagnosis and I still watch him like a hawk and would stop at nothing to ensure he is properly cared for- physically and emotionally. I pray you have or have found someone with enough empathy to take your symptoms seriously. If not please reach out to a local support group. I’m certain being with people who are also dealing with any symptoms , mild or otherwise, will validate your “complaints” and hopefully provide you with the love and support you need and deserve 🙏🏼❤️

    Yes, as others have suggested, distance yourself from you daughter and son-in-law. That energy is not healing, and it is disrespectful. Not just because you’re her mother. It would be cruel and disrespectful to anyone who has endured what you have. It is in some ways abusive. You have every right to talk about your experience as much as you want for, for as long as you need it. Not only is it continued healing for you, but it is inspiration and help to others. Family members often avoid the subject because everyone’s emotions are too much to handle. Perhaps your daughter needs therapy to deal with her own anxiety. But whatever you do, connect to supportive network that encourages rather than discourages. You deserve family who treat you lovingly, even if you must adopt them. You need loved ones who will continue walking and talking the whole way with you. Your journey hasn’t ended just because treatment is over.

    Missy Burke, my wife is a cancer survivor and she has the same problem with spices too. So much of your experience is not just imaginary…it’s real. Look to cancer research hospitals or cancer research support groups for other survivors. They will tell you that you are correct and your family are behaving as socio-paths towards you! Maybe your problems expose “their” cowardice! They are so afraid to lose you or see you suffer again? Selfishly, they just want to get on with “their” lives! And forget you ever had cancer or went thtough cancer treatment. Smh. Please find resources or family/friends that will treat you as you are, a precious jewel and a beautiful human worthy of being understood and validated.

    My husband was diagnosed with double hit lymphoma in 2015. The autopsy results showed he was in remission when he passed away in September 2020. My husband was never the same after his cancer treatment. He lost his sense of self and identity. Nothing I said or did could get him to embrace life again. Not even our children. In February 202O his oncologist thought he had relapsed. Upon reflection now, this was the catalyst for the beginning of the end. My husband spiraled out of control demonstrating paranoia and psychosis. Hisparanoia was so sever he had to be Baker Acted. Between the first Baker Act and 2nd Baker Act, the doctor’s could not explain the PET scan but said that everything was improving, and for my husband to focus on his mental health. The good news was too late for my husband to comprehend. My husband tried to kill me in June 2020. He was arrested, transferred to prison and 5 days later Baker Acted again. His son took him to another state to get him well. He passed away 2 months later. I was married for 23 years and my story only is a brief synopsis of my living nightmare. Oncologists need to not just treat the cancer but what follows after the treatment. My husband’s oncologist’s response “well your husband went through an aggressive treatment and it’s hard on couples.” If this is the case then why don’t they make psychological counseling mandatory. Also, what does the chemo really do to ones brain. Depression is real after any cancer treatment, and patients should be monitored for signs and symptoms for a minimum of one year post treatment. Don’t be a statistic like my husband. The healthcare system failed him bc they didn’t know how to treat the severity of his symptoms appropriately.

    Thank you for sharing, Tracey! I appreciated your comment that “depression is real after any cancer treatment.” I am experiencing long-term chronic type of cancer which requires maintenance treatments and depression is even a factor there. Perhaps, as you as someone else suggested, we should continue advocating for mandatory psychological treatment along with cancer diagnoses.

    This is the first time I have been on this site. These comments so resonate with me and they break my heart too. I had non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, uterine,and colon cancer all within a year. Never mind the surgeries but the chemo and radiation changed me forever. My doctors keep telling me I am a miracle and ae astonished that I am here.. but my mental capacity has been severely diminished and I struggle with memory loss. I often wonder why did I “make” it? the comments about people having virtually no understanding of the horrible side effects are also deeply hurtful. I have had great support of family and friends for the most part but it is still a very lonely road.

    I just passed my one-year mark of finishing chemo for breast cancer and am still so lazy! My diet has mostly improved but I had a birthday this week and have eaten almost a whole cake and have been getting take-out food, “celebrating” by not making myself cook for my 16-year old son and me. I am on anastrazole hormone blocker so I think my emotions are blunted; my thoughts are “meh” about most everything. There was a shooter at the mall? Oh well. Two people died? Hmmm. I get tired more easily still. I promise I will start exercising this week, if I can make myself. I am sure it will help with sleep and energy/stamina. I graduated from med school but didn’t do residency so I know doctors don’t have time to hold my hand about my feelings and don’t go into it too much. Mostly just soldiering through as I’ve always done. Have I dealt with it emotionally? Not sure. I’m pushing 60 in a few years and trying to figure out how much of this is loss of youth vs. loss of “health.” I can’t accept that I won’t be 100% again some day.

    Did you get to exercise this week? I keep saying the same thing every day. I just need to get unstuck, moving again. Well, hope you got it done. Even a little bit counts. It’s a start. You know, baby steps, progress not perfection, just do it
    Hope you did it.

    I am so blessed to have a relationship with not only the living God Who designed me but with my 5grown children, 22grands and 71/2 greats! I’m terrified of chemo brain, losing my memories and/or my abilities to create and write! Both my parents had dementia: my self taught Daddy, with two masters degrees was reduced to the shape sorter I trained my grandaughter with, and my Mammacita was never the same after multiple rehabs and amputations. I don’t want any part of walkers, diapers or hospitals! I’m in early IBC, ductal carcinoma.ER/PRHer2- brst cancer. I am stage 2 with PET/CT scans revealing that the beasties are in the 2cm tumor and one minimestasized lymph node. I pray it doesn’t change before surgery. I pray it doesn’t resurface in some other kind. I was more concerned with how my kids would react. I have struggled with terror and heartbreak over losing my hair, even though I cut my waist- length hair and donated it when I found out, blessing my Mammas longtime friend and our hairdresser bc she always wanted to do it. Then I felt so lame about it turning out to be nothing less than an idol I didn’t even know I have! I decided not to get buzzed and be Comrads with my middle son who does it for rebar. That took a lot of fear away. I have always had SAD and insomnia from too many swings and graveyards. My oldest daughter has literally turned her life upside down while suffering from depression, fibromyalgia and caring for her two fledglings who graduate hs this summer. She is an extreme type A which is actually good for me bc she’s very logical and keeps me on my steppingstone. She has taken care of all the finances for me and I’m trying not to feel stuck back in the social system it took me 10 yrs to get out of. She sees me in denial and so far I try to view cancer as a major inconvenience, v a death sentence, But I’m really beginning to think I need more help than my breast cancer pink sisters. I wont accept labels and have absolutely NO intention of throwing away 29 yrs of sobriety over this. But it’s getting harder to get beyond this place where I feel so much I don’t know what to feel, like when Mamma left and I just had a big block of ice in me. I feel like that again- it doesn’t feel real except for my hair and peeling knuckles. I just did chemo2 so I have a pretty long way. I’m 70 and I feel like a scared little girl one minute and like I just slid into my Mammas void the next. But I gotta say after reading all these, it’s time to clean up the pity party that no one goes to but me anyway. I’m blessed beyond measure so I need to stop feeling bad that somewhere along this path I ended up with wrinkles and “old people skin” even though I don’t feel I had the time to get old. I want to be a victor not a victim and someday be able to wear the gear, embrace bald like a trophy and help someonelse, maybe do a race better than I am. God bls you all! I will keep you in my 🙏🙏🙏 and ty for helping me refocus💕🙏🥰

    Thank you all for your candor here, it’s heartbreaking and also encouraging that we are not alone in dealing with the aftermath of cancer treatment. I am now 17 years “cured” from stomach cancer, and my while my beautiful twin daughters being born during my treatment gave me inspiration to live, going directly from cancer to raising them has been a living hell. It’s not their fault, and it’s not my fault, it’s just the combination of circumstances that has nearly destroyed my family. My wife is a saint for putting up with it, but it wears thin on her too. I was only 35 when I was diagnosed so now I am in my early 50s. While I haven’t had covid, the vaccine destroyed my gall bladder and sent me to the same hospital where I received my chemo to remove it, which brought back all kinds terrible associations. I feel I am now “damaged goods” and cannot fully embrace my family’s joys. I have always denied my depression but it has worsened and it’s time to admit it and try something different. We can do this, it just requires a lot of self-help and self-love which is extremely hard to muster most days.

    No one talks about how chemotherapy affects people ALREADY dealing with mental health issues. I had ADHD, anxiety, and perhaps even my depression before I started treatments. The psychologist at the cancer center could not help me get my life back together. My GPA in college is slipping and the energy, the will required to get help is huge. How can I help you? I don’t know CAN you help me?

    I am a 2 year survivor of triple negative breast cancer. I am now 44 years old. My main gripe is my weird, thin, wispy hair (I had Docetaxel), my now damaged boob, lymphodema under my armpit, cording in my right arm ( I am right handed) and an extreme tiredness that I cannot describe. It comes on suddenly and all I want to do is sleep. I have some anger as to how normal my body,boobs, hair etc was before cancer and how doctors seem to have caused more harm than good. I rely on God for strength. Sometimes I wish I had died instead but can’t tell anyone else that including family,friends, doctors etc. I get angry if people tell me what to eat suggesting that’s why I got cancer – and it’s not the doctors telling me that It’s my work colleagues!

    I am a one-year breast cancer survivor. I marshaled through my COVID-era diagnosis, surgery, radiation, and recovery like a champ. Then a year later, on the anniversary of my diagnosis, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t even realize it was my anniversary, but my subconscious did. When I was going through it, all my energy was focused on the appointments, the information, the treatment. I was also doing college tours with my daughter, helping her with applications and financial aid forms, and dealing with an incompetent teacher at her high school. But when the drama is over and you’re NED (No Evidence of Disease), you’re left with anxiety, survivor guilt, fear of recurrence, and long-term effects of treatment like lethargy, “fuzzy brain,” and the physical and emotional scars. I understand how important it is to provide resources and support to cancer patients, but when you’re no longer a patient and the doctor visits are over, you feel very isolated, alone, and a little abandoned. My husband was there for me and amazingly supportive and helpful through the whole thing, and still is. I’ve seen recommendations for support groups and therapists, but it seems like there should be something more. I’m participating in a hormone therapy research study which included counseling by a researcher, and that helped a little. But I feel like post-treatment counseling should be part of the treatment plan, not an optional addendum. Just my two cents.

    I lost my right breast to cancer 20 years ago. I had Chemo after the surgery and a reconstruction. At that time there were no resources suggested nor services offered to help with the life long road post cancer. Once treatment ended that was it. Out into the world alone. My point is looking back I see now that I needed to talk with someone who knew what I was going through. Adding fear to that isolating feel I had no idea if what I was feeling was normal or not. I was the only cancer person I knew. So bottom line here after chemo and all is said and done you may not realize it but post cancer is life long. The need for after care to some degree will be life long. Nowadays there are resources out there. Use them.

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Page last updated: Tuesday, June 23, 2020