Mental Health Therapy and Cancer

Cancer-2Mental health counseling and therapy can obviously be helpful when dealing with the anxiety and depression a patient may experience after first hearing a cancer diagnosis, but counseling can be essential later also, after the initial shock is gone.  Some patients handle the initial crisis stage quite well, but then struggle emotionally once treatment is completed.

When I was a cancer patient, I had a large red X on my calendar that showed me The Last Day Of Treatment.  It was almost always the first topic of conversation with fellow cancer patients.  We each asked of the other, “How many more rounds of chemo do you have?” or “When is your last day of radiation?”, etc., as we all eagerly looked forward to that last day.

As the last day came and went, I began to feel better physically, a little stronger each day. Psychologically, however, I began to experience some surprising new anxiety.  During treatment, my fears where assuaged with thoughts of “I am fighting this!” and “My doctors and nurses are doing everything they possibly can to help cure me.”  Once I was no longer seeing a medical professional weekly, I began to feel much more alone with my cancer.

Lidia Schapira, MD, medical oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, describes a patient’s coping with the end of active cancer treatment as follows:

Typically, there is a surge in anxiety and worry over the possibility that the cancer will return once active treatment is completed. Often, people feel they are not doing enough to actively fight the cancer.  People often want to know what signs to look for to detect a cancer recurrence (return) as early as possible and recognize the long-term side effects of treatment. 

If you are in treatment now, or know someone in treatment, remember the transition from cancer patient to cancer survivor can be a difficult one.  Some common symptoms of anxiety during this transition are:

  • worry about recurrence
  • worry about finances
  • thinking about dying young, before you expected
  • loss of ability to plan for the future
  • poor body image or self esteem
  • thoughts of “why me?”
  • blaming self and feeling “deserving” of the cancer
  • anger over the losses of time for treatment
  • fear of the long-term side effects of the treatments
  • fear of ongoing fatigue and weakness
  • inability to handle social situations
Mental health counseling or therapy can be beneficial during this critical time of transition.  One of the goals of the therapy will be to help the patient recognize, process, and reframe the anxiety-producing thoughts above.  The therapist can help the patient learn to work through the anxiety of transitioning into survivorship, and learn to celebrate the joys of the present.
Remember, the fight is not over once the treatment ends.  For some patients, an equally difficult struggle remains.  Mental health counseling can help ease this struggle.
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