Saving Your Mental Health Post-Cancer

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If you’ve gone through cancer, you’ve learned at least two things:

  • It’s important to stay positive.
  • Staying positive can drive you up the wall and down the other side.

It’s vital to care for your mental health during and after cancer treatment (and really, at all times). But it’s especially important after treatment, when everything is supposed to go back to normal—but it doesn’t.

A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute has found “compelling evidence” that breast cancer survivors have increased risk for anxiety, depression, neurocognitive dysfunction, and sexual dysfunction as compared to women who haven’t gone through cancer. After treatment, a woman may find that a new battle is just beginning, but knowing what to expect, and what to do, can make a world of difference.

Here are three key things to know about your mental health after a cancer diagnosis:

1. Don’t kill yourself with positivity

It’s good to be positive. It keeps your spirits up, motivates you, and encourages your loved ones. But staying positive shouldn’t mean you don’t allow yourself to be upset.

Holding back your negative emotions can cause an entirely new source of stress. The pressure to stay positive can make people hesitant to have conversations about death and end-of-life wishes, though a large majority of people with cancer do think about death. Talking about final wishes can give a person a sense of control, something in short supply during treatment.

The other danger of constant positivity is that messages like, “You can beat this!” or, “Kick cancer’s ass!” can make a patient feel like they’ve failed if treatment doesn’t go as planned or if cancer returns. The American Cancer Society says there’s no reason to think that emotions can cause cancer or make it worse or better.

The pressure to be positive can be even stronger after cancer, just as the emotions you didn’t have time to process during treatment come rushing in. Those emotions are normal, and you don’t need to be “living your best life” the day after you ring the chemo bell.

2. Don’t ignore the mental health risks

The above-mentioned meta-analysis looked over findings from 60 other studies on women with breast cancer and the challenges they faced after treatment. Study authors were aware of physical challenges post-cancer, like blood clots, bone fractures, and breathing problems, but they wanted to know more about cancer’s repercussions on mental health.

They found that who’ve gone through breast cancer have up to twice the risk of developing anxiety and depression when compared to women who haven’t had cancer. Breast cancer survivors also have up to twice the risk of sexual dysfunction, and the risks may be higher for women who get breast cancer at a younger age. All cancer survivors are at risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder due to the trauma of diagnosis and treatment or the fear of recurrence.

But risk is highest in the first years after treatment. Dr. Fremonta Meyer, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Center, told Reuters, “Several studies have shown that long term cancer survivors—more than five years from diagnosis—largely resemble the general population in terms of rates of mental health diagnoses.” There is hope that things will get better, and there’s help in the meantime.

3. Do Embrace Early Intervention

Be aware of the risk of mental health struggles after treatment and reach out for help as soon as you need it (or earlier!). “Early detection and treatment of any mental health issues that arise is likely to help women better cope with the disease and its aftermath,” said the study’s lead author, Helena Carreira.

A simple first step is to emphasize self-care: eat well, get enough rest, exercise, spend time with friends, and make time for what’s important to you. Find people and places where you can share your emotions, preferably with people who have gone through a similar experience.

And don’t stop there. While talking, support groups, and self-care can help you make huge gains in terms of mental health, many people benefit from a professional therapist or psychologist. The idea that you should be able to take care of yourself, all by yourself, is dangerous. Women are especially prone to the pressure to “do it all” and not have to ask for help. Please—ask for help. Watch out for the dark side of staying positive that tells you it’s not okay to not be okay.

Find a support group, talk to your doctor about mental health resources, and do some online research to find out more about the symptoms you’re experiencing so that you know it’s not all in your head. Mental health problems are common, and if you’re experiencing them, you deserve support.

Headlines like, “Breast Cancer Hurts Mental Health” are scary, and it’s tempting to want to just go back to bed and never get out. But while the risk is real, so is the hope that things will get better.

Be well, friends.

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Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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