How to cope when the emotional impact of cancer feels tougher than the physical

Three in 5 people find the mental challenge of cancer more difficult than the physical.

From hair loss to fatigue, the physical effects of cancer and its treatment are well documented – but the mental impact often gets less airtime.

A cancer diagnosis is life-changing and can understandably have a significant impact on a person’s emotional wellbeing that may last long after treatment has ended.

New research from national cancer charity Maggie’s has found that three in five people who have or have had cancer, find the mental challenge harder to cope with than physical treatment and side effects. Plus, more than half feel there is support for the physical aspects of cancer but not the emotional, and 47% don’t know where to go for mental health support.

Jo Stoddart, cancer senior healthcare development manager at Bupa UK Insurance, to share advice for taking care of yourself during and after cancer treatment.

How can cancer affect your mental health?

“It’s natural to feel frightened and overwhelmed when finding out about a cancer diagnosis. It can have a huge impact on not only your life, but also those around you,” says Stoddart.

“Being diagnosed and surviving cancer can be a long and emotional journey, and ‘getting back to normal’ might be more difficult than people first think. Finding out you’ve got the all clear is fantastic, but we know the impact of cancer often doesn’t end there.

Stoddart says the recovery period can be as physically and emotionally challenging, and mental health conditions are common but often neglected complications of cancer – “around 20% are affected by depression, and 10% are affected by anxiety.”

She adds: “Feeling anxious after treatment has ended is quite common as you start seeing your doctors and nurses less. People often feel drained, unprepared or unsure who to turn to, and that returning to normal can take much longer than expected. But you need to give yourself time to adjust.”

What changes might you recognise in yourself?

“There’s no set way for you to feel, and your emotions may be very up and down. You may feel very positive at times and very anxious at others,” notes Stoddart.

Naturally, being diagnosed with cancer can cause you to worry about the impact it will have on your family and your future. “You might feel anxious about upcoming appointments or treatments, and these feelings can come and go.”

“You might feel tired, irritable, unable to concentrate and have trouble sleeping,” continues Stoddart. “Anxiety can also have an impact on your physical health, from a racing heartbeat (palpitations), stomach cramps and sweating. Part of coping with your cancer is about looking after your emotions, so it could help to talk to your doctors or nurses if you’re having problems with worry or anxiety.

“Feeling sad and low at times isn’t unusual when you’re coping with cancer. But a continuous low mood that doesn’t go away after a couple of weeks can be a sign of depression. It’s quite common, with one in four people experiencing depression after their diagnosis.

Stoddart adds: “Anger is also a natural emotional response to a cancer diagnosis. You might be angry that you’re not able to do the things you used to do, or it’s unfair that you or someone you love has been affected by cancer but others haven’t. It can start to become a problem when it begins to harm the relationships you have with those around you.”

What steps can you take to improve your mental health during or after cancer?

We’ve all been spending lots of times indoors recently which can affect your mental wellbeing, so Stoddart says it’s especially important to stay connected to your friends and family.

“Our relationships with friends and family can play a huge role in our mental wellbeing, particularly when managing mental health issues like stress, depression or anxiety. Make sure you keep talking about your cancer, as this can be comforting and make you feel less anxious.

“Being part of a close network can also have its benefits to help detect if a friend is experiencing a mental health issue, for example if you notice a change in their behaviour or they suddenly become withdrawn. If you spot this in a friend, consider talking to them about it or seek advice on their behalf.

Seeking professional help is a must too. “It’s really important to seek medical advice without delay if you’re experiencing mental health issues,” stresses Stoddart. “Early diagnosis is proven to significantly improve outcomes by aiding recovery, or educating and improving how a condition can be managed. Your GP or health professional can advise on what steps you can take, and how your friends and family can play a role in this.”

For further support, every Maggie’s centre has a cancer support specialist who can help people when they’re scared, worried or feeling down. Staff are trained to provide practical and emotional support, and they also offer appointments with psychologists, either one to one, in private, or in a group with family members.

Talking with people you can relate to can also help you manage the emotional strain of cancer. Part of Maggie’s psychological support also involves bringing people together, either informally round the kitchen table, in courses and workshops, or psychologist facilitated support groups. Many of these services are being offered digitally, in line with social distancing rules.

It may also be worth checking out Macmillan’s free online community, which is a place for people who are living with or who are affected by cancer to chat about the issues affecting them. Health professionals, trained volunteers, and Macmillan staff are also active in the community, so you can get a range of advice, tips and support.