The Psychological Effects of Cancer

Contributed by Scott Sanders

During cancer treatment, you’re under fire from several directions. The disease itself, as well as the typical cancer treatments, can cause a lot of stress emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It doesn’t help that a cancer diagnosis often comes out of the blue, rather than being something you know is coming and can prepare for. However, you can still take steps to manage your well-being following your diagnosis. Here are a few things you can try.

The emotional effects of cancer usually start right from the diagnosis. The common response is very similar to grief, and it may be some time before you come to terms with the knowledge, experiencing a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions in the meantime. It is also common for cancer patients to experience anxiety and apprehension about cancer treatments, in terms of how you will feel physically but also body image issues such as hair loss. These emotions usually start out strong and reduce in intensity over time, but it’s still important to take deliberate, regular actions to manage your psychological well-being following your diagnosis.

Emotional Wellness

Because of the stress of a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, many people turn to unhealthy coping methods like smoking or alcohol consumption. However, this generally leads to even more stress and a lower quality of life. The National Cancer Institute recommends that you focus on healthy coping methods instead. Activities like yoga, meditation, or slow breathing exercises can help calm the nervous system, as can spending time in nature. You should also make sure you take advantage of any group support sessions or see a counselor regularly. Your doctor will be able to advise you on local organizations offering these services.

Physical Wellness

Cancer treatment can take a huge physical toll, as it can affect your appetite as well as your energy levels. However, try to look after your body to the best of your ability. Exercise is really important to the healthy functioning of the body, so whenever you do have the energy, try to get some exercise, but don’t over-stress yourself -- a brisk walk or light jog will do fine. The same philosophy goes for your diet; when you have an appetite, take advantage of that by eating nutrient-dense food, and try to keep your protein intake up. Experiment a little -- try to find which foods you find palatable most often and keep these around the house. Fresh fruit, yogurt, and peanut butter are common choices.

Spiritual Wellness

The Canadian Cancer Society explains that cancer can affect spirituality in different ways. For some, religious and spiritual beliefs provide a framework that helps them understand and accept their diagnosis. Others may feel they have been let down by their god or that they are being punished in some way. If you are a spiritual or religious person, it may help to devote some extra time to your faith by spending time in prayer, reading religious texts, or seeking counsel from your faith leaders -- even if you haven’t been a regular attendee of services in the past. This can help make sure that your spirituality is a benefit to you during your treatment and not a hindrance. Even if you are not religious, you might benefit from secular contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation.

Because cancer can affect you in many different ways, you should approach self-care from multiple angles too. Pick one of these areas -- emotional, physical, or spiritual -- and take some steps toward better well-being today. A little effort to take care of yourself can pay dividends in terms of your quality of life and ability to cope.

Scott Sanders is the creator of CancerWell.org, which provides resources and support for anyone who has been affected by any form of cancer. He is also the author of the book Put Yourself First: A Guide to Self-care and Spiritual Wellness During and After Cancer Treatment, coming Summer 2018!