Managing Your Mental Health with Cancer

LUNGevity Foundation

Good mental health, or our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, is essential for overall health. Being diagnosed and living with cancer, however, can impact our mental health. It can affect how we think, feel, and act, so it’s important to recognize this change and find strategies to cope.

We sat down Jennifer Bires, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C, Executive Director of Life with Cancer and Patient Experience for the Inova Schar Cancer Institute, to learn more about the importance of mental health and how people affected by cancer can cope.

Is it normal to have a change in your mental health after being diagnosed with cancer?

Yes, absolutely. I would say 100% of people experience some amount of distress.  A cancer diagnosis can affect your feelings, thoughts, behavior, and general state of mind – and that’s in addition to potential physical side effects. Distress can impact your ability to cope which is why it’s important to pay attention to how you are feeling.

Distress is a very normal reaction to a very difficult time in a person’s life. We need to normalize that cancer is very hard and it’s okay to not feel okay.
It’s also okay to ask for help. About 30% of people affected by cancer experience distress in a moderate to high range that might need some type of extra support. We anticipate that you might ask for help and are here for you.

When throughout a patient’s journey with cancer do these changes in mental health most commonly occur?

There are several times throughout people’s experience with cancer that they might experience distress or other changes in mental health. Generally, it’s during a period of unknown, such as at the time of diagnosis or while someone is waiting for a treatment plan, or at a point of change, like if their diagnosis changes or if their treatment isn’t work and they need to try something else. All of this is part of the natural trajectory of cancer but can be very stressful.

What are signs of distress or mental health issues?

There are a lot of telltale signs. Some, like insomnia and fatigue, are trickier because it could be a side effect of your treatment rather than a sign of distress. Others are a bit clearer: lack of interest in spending time with family and friends or things you previously enjoyed, racing thoughts or mental spirals you can’t stop, constantly researching new information online, or withdrawing or isolating yourself.

What are some strategies to help cope with diagnosis and life with cancer?

My biggest piece of advice is to find an oncology social worker. Even if your hospital or clinical doesn’t have one, you can reach out to national resources. Social workers can do an assessment and quickly get you resources that can help.

Some people might think that they don’t need help or, if they get help, they are taking it away from someone else. But I’ve never met anyone that said “I wish I hadn’t gotten additional help or resources.” It’s more likely to meet someone who says “I wish I had reached out sooner.”

Even if it’s not overwhelming, going through cancer alone is not a good idea. There are so many resources out there, both locally and nationally, because we expect you to feel some level of distress. Support groups, therapists, nurse navigators, and other resources are all very helpful in a very difficult time. These resources are available to all people affected by cancer, whether you are feeling mild or high distress. They can help you process your experience and can look out for warning signs that you need additional help.

There are other things you can do on your own as well. The challenge is trying to find something that works for you. This is where social workers can be helpful because they can help wade through this with you to find the right match that meets your need.

Some ideas to try include finding social connections, like zooming with friends, coffee dates, or joining a support group. The latter is a great way to normalize some of the thoughts or feelings you are having.

Mindfulness and meditation really work for some people as well. It can be really powerful to harness your own inner wisdom. You can teach yourself different breathing techniques or find a class for people with cancer (which can also be an added bonus for those looking for a social connection).
Other people find exercise, journaling, utilizing art and music, or just finding a good distraction, like reading or watching TV, work well for them. Ultimately, you just need to figure out what works for you.

What are some signs you might need additional help managing your mental health?

Any time you are feeling particularly hopeless for number of days in a row and it’s not coming and going or if you feel at risk for self-harm, this is the right time to reach out and get additional assistance. These are very difficult circumstances with information changing rapidly and people feel like they are losing pieces of themselves. These feelings are very normal and there is help; it does you no good to sit in it yourself. Coping strategies and therapy can make a huge difference!

Do you have any advice for someone who is struggling but isn’t sure how to reach out for help?

First and foremost, know that what you are feeling is very normal.
Second, see if your treatment center has an oncology social worker on staff. They can do an assessment, provide you with support, and help loop in your medical team if necessary. On top of all that, they can connect with you resources in the community or nationally that could help, all depending on your needs.

If there is no social worker where you are treated, there are great national resources, like American Cancer Society or Cancer Support Community, who have social workers and resource specialists you can talk to as well.

Jennifer ended our conversation with this message: “It’s important to remember you are having a normal reaction to a very difficult situation. The earlier you reach out and get the support you need, the better the situation will be and the better your care will be. Reaching out sooner helps normalize how you feel and connect you to resources that will help you through your treatment experience in the best way possible.”

If you are experiencing difficulties maintaining your mental health, be sure to talk to your doctor about tips on how to cope and other recommendations.

Are you living with lung cancer? LUNGevity has resources to help.

Related Reading:

Jennifer Bires is the Executive Director of Life with Cancer and Patient Experience for the Inova Schar Cancer Institute (ISCI).  As Executive Director, she works to ensure that patients, survivors, and their family members have access to psychosocial care at no cost to them to help individuals cope with cancer, its treatments, and survivorship in the best possible way. She specializes in working with Young Adults who have been diagnosed with cancer, communication around end of life concerns, sexual health and has over a decade of experience running groups for people impacted by cancer.

She oversees the ISCI Arts and Healing program ensuring patients have access to the arts as a modality of healing and part of their treatment process.  Jennifer earned her master’s degree from Washington University in Saint Louis.  She earned her bachelor’s degree at Clemson University.  She was awarded the Oncology Social Worker of the year in 2017 from the Association of Oncology Social Workers and currently serves as the chair for the Board of Oncology Social Work.


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