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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13 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.

    Chris,

    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.

    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

    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!!

    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.

    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.

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Page last reviewed: Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Page last updated: Tuesday, June 23, 2020