May is mental health awareness month. Mental illness is a common and serious problem, as 1 in 5 Americans have a diagnosable mental health illness, and 1 in 25 have mental health illnesses considered debilitating. Cancer survivors are amongst this group – however, with a cancer diagnosis, most attention is focused on the body – how it’s responding to treatment, how it’s recovering, whether or not cancer has metastasized, will cancer come back, the list goes on. Although these concentrations on the body are immensely important, so too is the state of the mind.
There’s a need for greater psychosocial support for cancer patients, survivors and caregivers. Even when screened for depressive disorders, anxiety and cancer-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many patients may not be receiving the help they need, especially if they are coping by “putting on a happy face” when in reality, they are also battling a depressive disorder.
You’re not alone
Studies have shown that compared to the general population, colorectal cancer survivors experience reduced quality of life, with 37% of CRC survivors reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression. Females tend to be more likely to express mental health conditions, as do individuals with additional comorbidities (such as heart disease or diabetes). Some cancer patients are more prone to mental health disorders, including:
- those with a family or personal history of depression or suicide
- a personal history of substance abuse
- a weak social support system
- those with a more serious prognosis
Changes in life plans such as body image, financial hardships and changes in social dynamics all are contributing factors to depression and anxiety as a result of a cancer diagnosis.
Don’t ignore the signs
Many people who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer experience a range of emotions like sadness and grief that ebb and flow throughout the cancer continuum. This also goes for family members or friends of someone who is diagnosed. While these are normal reactions to experience upon a cancer diagnosis, depressive disorders can be more serious, requiring special attention.
The American Cancer Society lists the following as signs of depression:
- Sad or “empty” mood almost every day for most of the day
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed
- Eating problems (loss of appetite or overeating), including weight loss or gain
- Sleep changes (can’t sleep, early waking, or oversleeping)
- Tiredness or less energy almost every day
- Other people notice that you’re restless or “slowed down” almost every day
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
- Trouble concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide, or attempts at suicide
- Wide mood swings from depression to periods of agitation and high energy
Do not ignore signs of depression and anxiety – the first step in treating these conditions is through acknowledgment. Depressive disorders, anxiety and cancer-related PTSD add excess stress to the body which is trying to heal and fight cancer, and some studies have suggested patients with mental illness may have poorer clinical outcomes than those without.
If you’re feeling symptoms of depression, there are some things you can do:
- Reach out to family members and friends.
- Ask your health care team about treatments that can help (this may include antidepressants, acupuncture, massage, cannabis and more).
- Call the Fight CRC resources line to speak to someone and get resources.
- Join a group (in person, or virtual – Inspire) to talk with others going through similar experiences.
- Take time in the day for deep breathing and relaxation.
- Make plans with a supportive family member or friend to do something you enjoy or experience a new activity
- Avoid alcohol and tobacco products
- Each new day is a fresh opportunity to be content and happy
If someone you know is showing signs of depression:
- Try engaging them in activities, and promote physical activity.
- Be understanding.
- Ask how you can help.
- Don’t force conversations if they’re not ready.
Depression and Cancer: More Than a Side Effect?
National Cancer Institute: Coping With Cancer
Mindfulness: What Does It Mean?
Depression Can Hasten Cancer Death
Inspire Online Community
Suicide Prevention Hotline