From the minute they hear the words “you have cancer,” newly diagnosed patients face a storm of emotions. Almost every patient will experience feelings of fear or sadness. Psychologists agree that this is a natural reaction to the major changes that are about to take place in their lives.
If the feelings of sadness reach a certain level—one in which depressive symptoms last for more than two weeks—patients may need to ask for help addressing their emotions. This is especially true if anxiety, sleeplessness, or guilt starts to interfere with their daily lives.
Some patients can combat depression with minor lifestyle changes. Many report mood improvements after starting a gentle yoga practice; the mind-body therapy is highly relaxing. Similarly, regular meditation can help patients clear their minds of fears about the future.
Patients may also improve their mental quality of life by participating in relaxing alternative therapies. These include:
- Therapeutic massage
- Pet therapy
- Jin Shin Jyutsu
Regular exercise also serves as an ideal outlet for anxiety in people whose oncologists have cleared them for physical activity.
Certain natural medicines are also appropriate for patients fighting depression. Some studies have shown that St. John’s wort—a widely available herb—is just as effective as some pharmaceuticals in treating mild to moderate cases of depression. The studies also indicate that it may cause fewer side effects than tricyclic antidepressants—great news for people who are already dealing with enough side effects from cancer treatment.
For patients with more severe depression, these approaches may not provide significant relief. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the patient; it simply means that professional support may be necessary.
Counseling and support groups are often the first line of professional help that cancer patients consider. They are extremely easy to access—many hospitals, cancer centers, advocacy groups, and hospice organizations across the nation offer these forms of emotional care. These options are judgment-free places for people to meet with social workers or therapists who are specially trained in handling oncological issues.
Counseling programs for cancer patients typically touch on issues of mortality, grief, and loss, as well as difficult end-of-life decisions. Patients often walk away from the sessions with practical coping techniques that they can continue to implement on their own.
Support groups also offer patients a forum to share coping mechanisms and successes with other people in the same situation. Most importantly, they help people understand that they are not alone—a concept that lies at the heart of many patients’ fears.
One German study found that individual and group therapy, as well as psychoeducation, yielded small to moderate improvements in emotional distress and quality of life. For many patients, reductions in anxiety and depression lasted for more than six months (although the benefits of relaxation training were more short-term).
Some patients may choose to follow these interventions with medications that combat anxiety, restlessness, or ongoing depression. A professional will prescribe one (or more) that will not interfere with the person’s cancer treatments. Once they’ve started the regimen, they should note benefits within two to four weeks.
As with other aspects of cancer treatment, mental health care is the subject of several clinical trials across the nation. These trials are performed under the supervision of licensed mental health practitioners and oncology workers. People who are interested in this type of depression treatment may consider finding a psycho-oncology care trial that is recruiting participants in their area.
- Faller, H., Schuler, M., Richard, M., Heckl, U., Weis, J., & Kuffner, R. (2013). Effects of psycho-oncologic interventions on emotional distress and quality of life in adult patients with cancer: systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Oncology. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23319686
- American Cancer Society – St. Johns Wort. (2008). Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/herbsvitaminsandminerals/st-johns-wort
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