Mental Health and Cancer: The Often-Overlooked Connections

Dealing with an illness as serious as cancer is no small thing. A cancer diagnosis of often accompanied with swift and aggressive treatment, and it’s all but expected that a person will be overwhelmed, worried, fearful, and anxious while doctors focus on their medical well-being. It’s true that anxiety and depression are two very real and very common consequences of a cancer diagnosis. But just because they’re expected doesn’t mean they can, or should, be ignored. Addressing the mental health needs of cancer patients at all ages is essential, and counseling for cancer patients is valuable for its own sake. But it does go a step further: failing to address these concerns may actually decrease the patient’s odds of recovery.

Depression is a very good example. A new study has found that depression is strongly associated with reduced cancer survival. Those who were not depressed, but actually felt hopeful, were more likely to recover than those who were depressed. But it was simply the power of positive thinking that helped them heal, say the study’s authors. “Simply believing there will be a good outcome” was not linked to survival. However, being hopeful did encourage people to take better care of themselves by taking an active role in their treatment decisions. People who were depressed, on the other hand, were less engaged in their treatment and recovery.

Anxiety and cancer are similarly linked, with one in four anxious enough to receive an anxiety disorder diagnosis and 3% actually exhibiting signs of PTSD. Even when people make a full recovery from the cancer, some walk away with PTSD, panic attacks, and new phobias of needles and other treatment-related triggers. While it’s certainly logical for medical doctors to focus heavily on the medical treatment of a cancer patient, mental health ought to be integrated into every treatment plan. Simply leaving depression and anxiety unaddressed for months of treatment not only diminishes the effectiveness of that treatment, but can leave emotional and psychological scars even if the cancer is gone.

© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • abby

    abby

    November 17th, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    I believe this has to do with the overall outlook of a person…some people are optimistic,some neutral while others are pessimistic about most things in life…and we all know what the average life expectancy of each of these groups is…!

  • Discovery Counseling

    Discovery Counseling

    November 17th, 2010 at 11:31 AM

    This is a good example of how our mental outlook/health can affect our physical health. We need to be aware of this connection in dealing with people.

  • Evan

    Evan

    November 17th, 2010 at 11:50 AM

    You post above states “But it was simply the power of positive thinking that helped them heal, say the study’s authors.”

    I think there’s an omission in your blog post there of the word “not”. The original article states the opposite, and I quote: “The study did not find a relationship between optimistic thinking (simply believing there will be a good outcome) and survival.”.

    I believe you meant that sentence to say it was NOT simply the power of positive thinking that helped them heal.

  • Andrew

    Andrew

    November 17th, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    My grandmother became very depressed when she was diagnosed with cancer. I did express my concern about that to her doctor and was basically told well what do you expect, she’s dying of cancer. What I expected was for the depression to be treated as well. I was dismayed that the doctor didn’t think that was that important.

  • Ryan

    Ryan

    November 17th, 2010 at 6:45 PM

    I think the immediate family members of cancer sufferers should also be watched over closely for depression and anxiety symptoms as well. The dx is hard for them to cope with too and their own symptoms may be ignored or overlooked because of the focus on the cancer sufferer.

  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    November 17th, 2010 at 7:14 PM

    And why shouldn’t a cancer patient’s depression be treated too? I don’t get that doctor’s logic, Andrew. Surely they of all people need that to help them face such a traumatic diagnosis.

  • LARRY

    LARRY

    November 18th, 2010 at 4:38 AM

    Being diagnosed for something as big as cancer can really break a person’s back, no matter what the age or other parameters and no matter how cheerful the person is.

    Also depression is bound to get to the person as a result of the news and it is best to treat the person for depression along with cancer.

  • Angela

    Angela

    November 18th, 2010 at 5:37 AM

    No matter what type of disease it is is, whether it is cancer or something else, once someone gets depressed it is harder for them to fight through it and to remian positive. I have always sniffed a little at the power of positive thinking and thought that getting well is about so much more than that. And maybe it is. But I also know that being able to stay in a positive state of mind can go a long way toward helping everyone heal. Cancer and those kinds of diseases which are so often terminal can be a daunting thing to face down, but with the right attitude I firmly believe that they can be beaten and overcome!

  • violet

    violet

    November 18th, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    It makes sense that the more you face your cancer head on, the more likely you are to prolong your life. You never know when you may stumble across a new treatment or option you would never have heard of if you relied only on your own doctor’s frame of reference.

  • bethany

    bethany

    November 18th, 2010 at 12:06 PM

    Being actively involved in finding out all you can about your cancer can help you far more positive because you feel you’re not sitting helplessly by. When you have hope, you’re going to step up rather than stand down. Allowing depression to immobilize you into inactivity absolutely isn’t good but it is understandable.

  • gilbert

    gilbert

    November 18th, 2010 at 1:33 PM

    you are exactly right,ryan.not only is the patient affected by depression but the family members are affected by it too.just having someone in the family ill or down with a common problem is demoralizing and depressing.so I can only imagine what kind of negative thoughts cancer can bring.

  • Dee

    Dee

    November 18th, 2010 at 1:46 PM

    My friend has been cancer-free now for eight years and is now prone to panic attacks. Who could blame her? Every time she finds a lump or bump, she worries the cancer is back. It must be horrible to live with that fear simmering under the surface every day in life.

  • Ruby Taylor

    Ruby Taylor

    November 18th, 2010 at 11:05 PM

    A cancer diagnosis of often accompanied with swift and aggressive treatment, and it’s all but expected that a person will be overwhelmed, worried, fearful, and anxious while doctors focus on their medical well-being. It’s true that anxiety and depression are two very real and very common consequences of a cancer diagnosis.

  • Minson

    Minson

    November 18th, 2010 at 11:57 PM

    A double blow of cancer and depression can actually aggravate the problem and survival chances may decreae if you ask me!

  • Jenn

    Jenn

    November 19th, 2010 at 5:46 AM

    There are so many possibilities and seeming correlations here- it would seem that it would be difficult to narrow it all down and determine which comes first. Is this particular cancer patient one who would have been prone to experience depression and anxiety in the first place or is this truly someone who would have never shown signs of this without having had cancer? And then we have to find out which is going to be the most important aspect to fight first. Do you try to fight the cancer with drugs, or do you treat the patient for the depression simultaneously so that he or she can potentially become a little more hopeful and positive about having to face cancer and the battle that lies ahead?

  • Ruby Taylor

    Ruby Taylor

    December 10th, 2010 at 6:45 AM

    Depressive disorders can make one feel exhausted, worthless, helpless, and hopeless. It is important to realize that these negative views are part of the depression and do not accurately reflect the actual circumstances. Negative thinking fades as treatment begins to take effect.

  • nathan

    nathan

    November 15th, 2014 at 12:13 PM

    I started chemo at age 4 until i was 11.. my first memories are starting treatment…to me was being tortured …i never got any therapy and just repressed it until just this week at age 39 and went into full ptsd … my life has never gone good even with positive thinking because at 4 years old all my mental problems is behavioral conditioning and because not being addressed during and after treatment i never had a chance to function in life ..ive tried my ass off but my subconshish defensive’s stops it … right now i dont see the point of survival because without intensive therapy im only alive to deal with being mental ….

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