How to Cope With the Impact of Cancer on Your Mental Health

February 20, 2020
Rebecca Segal

There are those rare, pivotal moments in life that never leave you, even after other memories from the same period have faded. I experienced mine in November 2018, when my doctor called me into his office and told me I had cancer.

My world crumbled. I was the healthiest I had ever been and had just turned 32 a month before my diagnosis. I was strong, athletic, and mentally fit. There had to be a mistake. The doctor told me I had stage I papillary cancer in the left node of my thyroid and that there was a 99% chance of survival if I had the entire gland removed. 

I didn’t really hear any of it. The word “cancer” was the only thing I could think about as my brain constantly dove back in time to relive the words, “It’s cancer.”

The impact of cancer on my mental health was, as you might expect, a negative one at first. Even though my doctor and my thyroid specialist had given me an excellent chance of survival after surgery—and, I didn’t need any radiation treatment—the word “cancer” had me in knots.

I have always been one of those people who protects others. I find joy in lifting their lives up to the best of my ability. That, in turn, gives me a lift. Aside from writing and horses, helping others is one of my greatest passions. But after my diagnosis, no one else mattered. My world closed in around me, and I felt trapped and afraid. No one in my support group could ease that fear because the only one who was living it was me. 

When I received my cancer diagnosis, I noticed that living with cancer impacted my mental health in 3 major ways.

  1. 1. Mental numbness

    I feel like there is a difference between brain fog and mental numbness. With brain fog, I can still empathize with what others are feeling; Emotions are as present as they have always been. Mental numbness, as I experienced it, cut me off from my emotions. I wasn’t happy, or angry, or sad, or anything else. I was simply just there. 

    This mental shutdown was a survival instinct, like flipping an “off” switch to save money and power in a building. The shock and the acute mental agony of knowing there was a malignant tumor inside of me was more than I could process.

  2. 2. Exhaustion

    I was not only mentally spent, but also physically exhausted. To me, the weight of cancer was insurmountable and inescapable. It was an invisible world that I had to hold up or risk never coming through the other side of this diagnosis.

    The thought of the thing inside my thyroid kept me up at night. I would lay there and stare up at the ceiling, too tired to function and yet unable to rest.

  3. 3. Anxiety

    Everything was too large to tackle after finding out I had cancer. I was fearful of everything. Everyone was out to get me in one way or another, and my paranoia turned into a daily struggle.

    All I could think of was this: If the universe gave me cancer, what is the rest of the world capable of doing to me?

    I remember sitting in the waiting room with my white-knuckled parents, waiting for the surgeon to come collect me. When I woke up from the operation, all I could think was “I’m alive.”

    The days following that moment were some of the toughest in my life. My first night home, I was rocked awake by excruciating pain and fast-spreading numbness in all of my limbs. My jaw was locked in place; I couldn’t breathe. 

    I ended up back in the hospital that night, but this time there was nothing physically wrong with me. Instead, the doctor told me I’d experienced a severe panic attack.

    As terrifying as that night was, it had perhaps the greatest impact on my mental health than any other time I can remember—in a positive way.

A new perspective on my life

For the first time since my diagnosis in November—it was now April—I felt powerful. The numbness was still there, which made connecting with both myself and other people difficult, but I was no longer afraid. I had survived both the cancer and the treatment. More than that, an ultrasound revealed the tumor was truly gone. Being a survivor was about more than just surviving to me. It also gave me a chance to see that the world hadn’t stopped for me. And if the world wasn’t going to stop, neither was I.

It’s so easy to take things for granted. After surviving cancer, I vowed to never take anything for granted again. I started to focus instead on the air I breathed, the earth I walked on, the fact that I had all of my limbs, and a family who loved me.

I appreciate each day because I’d experienced the fear of death. Even though my diagnosis had not been life-threatening, it had still felt like certain death. I felt like I had been given a second chance at life, and I wasn’t going to waste it.

The metaphorical darkness lifted and so did the heavy, sucking weight of my anxiety. With my new chance at life—it was how I saw it then and how I will always see it—my anxiety became manageable with daily meditation and journal writing. The feelings of power and appreciation were not only gifts, but also tools meant to help me overcome my greatest fears.

Throughout the process, I also learned other ways to cope with the impact cancer had on my mental health. Here are some of the ways I worked at nurturing my mental health:

  1. Have a consistent support system (family, friends, or even pets).

  2. Be organized with your time and your medical information.

  3. Spend time with loved ones.

  4. Embrace your passion.

  5. Remember to breathe and, if you can, meditate.

  6. Listen to inspiring podcasts.

  7. Connect with people who have been through what you have.

  8. Write about your experiences in a journal or record them in a video.

  9. Never take anything for granted and remember you’re alive.

  10. Be honest with yourself and remember you are worth it.

Cancer doesn’t have to be the end of your happiness. The day of diagnosis might be the worst of your life but push through and don’t let anything stop you. You are here on this earth today, along with the chance to appreciate every moment.

Cancer, no matter the kind, is a devastating diagnosis. It can strip the world of its beauty and make you feel empty and hopeless. But it can also ignite a fire inside that will never be extinguished. 


Share your thoughts on this blog post on Cancer.Net's Facebook and Twitter.