A cancer diagnosis is difficult to hear and can set off a range of complex emotions. Medical oncologist Dr. Lidia Schapira offers compassionate advice for finding support that is right for you and recognizing when you might need professional help.
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Cancer.Net: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®
Finding Mental Health Support During Cancer
Voice Over: A cancer diagnosis is difficult to hear and can set off a range of complex emotions. Asking for and accepting help from others is an important part of coping with the stress that cancer can bring.
Lidia Schapira, MD; Medical Oncologist, Member, American Society of Clinical Oncology: Everybody diagnosed with cancer needs help of some sort. Maybe it’s informal help from loved ones, family and other folks in one’s community, and maybe it’s formal help: help from trained professionals such as a social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist. There are other ways of asking help and getting help. These days, many people find help through online communities. People find help also in formal support groups that are led by social workers in medical settings. People may find help in their church or faith community. So there are all sorts of ways in finding help.
A lot depends on what you bring to the diagnosis of cancer. You bring your temperament. You bring your personality, your mindsets, your beliefs. But, I think the most important thing in my message to anybody diagnosed with cancer is that it’s important to feel connected. It’s important to actually be sincere enough and self-aware enough to know that it is a good time to get some help.
It’s a time when typically people need to organize their feelings, gather a lot of information, and establish a good circle of supporters to get them through what’s going to be a complex journey.
Being diagnosed with cancer is not just something that you can add on to everything else that you’re doing. It’s not just one more item for your calendar. It really requires an enormous effort.
Voice Over: While getting help from friends and family is a positive step, there are several warning signs to look for that may mean it’s time to ask for professional help.
Dr. Schapira: Being unable to sleep at night, waking up during the night, perhaps eating too much or too little, perhaps feeling nervous or jittery; some physical symptoms that indicate that one is living in a state of high stress or high anxiety or some even emotional or psychological issues such as not being able to organize one’s thoughts.
If somebody has a very difficult time making a decision about treatment, if they’re very anxious about receiving test results. Those are clues to the clinicians and maybe also to the members of the patient’s family or other loved ones that that person really has enormous amounts of distress. In the same way that we offer relief for any physical symptoms such as nausea, fatigue or pain, it’s important for cancer clinicians to offer help also for distress or anxiety, depression and other mental health problems that are incredibly common during a cancer journey.
Voice Over: Oncologists typically talk with patients about their emotional well-being but if a person feels like they need emotional help and support, they should not hesitate to talk with any member of their cancer care team to get the help that they need.
Dr. Schapira: Some patients are very connected to their primary care physician for instance and may be more comfortable visiting their primary care just to debrief after conversations or maybe asking for a referral to a psychologist, social worker, psychiatrist that they know so that they can really have a one-on-one.
Patients can also reach out to their oncology clinicians, their infusion nurse, their nurse practitioner, their oncologist and just basically directly ask for help, ask for a referral or recommendation. By saying, “Look, I’m struggling. I’m having a very hard time wrapping my head around what’s happening,” or “I find myself unable to sleep at night.”
Voice Over: There are times that cancer survivors may experience increased anxiety, or may feel more vulnerable and more distressed, such as the time of their diagnosis, when active treatment ends, when tests or scans are scheduled, on anniversary dates related to their experience, and if a recurrence happens. Seeking professional guidance to help cope with this emotional stress can help you and your loved ones.
Dr. Schapira: We recognize and we know through years of research that mental health interventions help people cope. There are very specific ways. There are short therapies. There are supportive therapies. There’s so many different ways that specifically addresses cancer-related distress or fear of cancer recurrence, things that are so common; the anxiety before scans, dealing with news, making decisions. There are so many interventions that we now have that actually help people address it and be more confident as they go through cancer treatment and also when they finish active cancer therapy.
To get more information on how to cope with cancer, we have materials at Cancer.Net, ASCO’s website for the public. There’s a tab called “Coping with Cancer” and there we have valuable resources on managing emotions, communicating, and finding support.
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Cancer.Net: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®
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