Depression, Anxiety, Stress and Cancer
Photo Credit: Aleksandar Milutinovic /

The Effects of Mental Health, Stress and Cancer

Some people will take their cancer diagnosis in stride. They will readily process and accept the information about the condition, the prognosis, and the treatment without any ill effects or significant impact on their life.

The days after their diagnosis will look remarkably like the days prior to their diagnosis as they do well mentally and physically. These people will be the small minority of all people with a cancer diagnosis.

The vast majority of people will experience a monumental shift in their mental and physical functioning, and for good reason: cancer creates effects on your body that are direct and negative. The treatments can do the same as they often result in weakness, fatigue, clouded thinking, and nausea.

The unwanted impacts don’t end there, though. As people deal with the negative consequences to their physical functioning, they are confronted with massive amounts of stress and tension due to the indirect effects of cancer.

A cancer diagnosis carries huge amounts of emotional weight. Everyone seems to know a life that has been affected by cancer. First-hand or by word of mouth, they have noted the destruction done, and it’s scary.

Fear, stress, and tension grow like weeds in a garden. They may start out as small and manageable, but as time goes on, it becomes more time consuming and complicated to pull them out.

If positive supports and optimism are the flowers and vegetables you intended to grow in your garden, the weeds will push them out. Before long, your garden will be full only of weeds.

Depression as a Weed

Depression in people with cancer is quite common and very understandable. As many as 25 percent of all people with cancer will develop a type of depression, but it can be hard to diagnosis.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Low mood or irritability
  • Low motivation
  • Low energy
  • Changed sleep
  • Weight loss
  • Increased feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Thoughts of death
  • Problems with concentration and making choices

While looking at the list, it is easy to see how cancer and cancer treatments may overlap with symptoms of depression, but depression will be longer lasting, more intense, and more pervasive than feelings of sadness. If the feelings are present more often than not for two weeks, it could likely be depression.

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Anxiety as a Weed

Depression is not the only outcome of these weeds in your garden. Anxiety is another option, and it can present as a low-grade, ever-present anxiety, an intense but fleeting anxiety, and variations between.

The ever-present version is called generalized anxiety, with symptoms like:

  • Intense and excessive worry
  • Feeling restless
  • Problems with focus
  • Being irritable
  • Poor sleep
  • Feeling physically tense and unable to relax

People with a cancer diagnosis might spend huge amounts of time worrying about their future, their ability to continue working, their children, and other stressors. This worry can consume aspects of their life and lessen their ability to function as high levels.

The intense periods of anxiety may develop into panic attacks. Panic attacks are periods of high anxiety that last for less than 10 minutes usually. They will be marked by:

  • Pounding heart
  • Shortness of breath or feelings of choking
  • Being lightheaded, numb, or dizzy
  • Feeling very hot or cold
  • Fear that you are dying or losing control of yourself

These panic attacks can occur with or without the generalized anxiety. Additionally, it is possible that a person dealing with cancer can have depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.

Pulling the Weeds

It may seem like depression, anxiety, and panic are too many obstacles to overcome — too many weeds to pull. The task might seem daunting, but taking care of your mental health will leave you with more resources to care for your physical health. If your physical health can improve, the weeds might not grow back.

When beginning the process of cleaning out the garden, it will be essential to use your time and energy wisely as they are in limited supply. Avoiding negative coping skills that seem positive will be a good starting point.

If you don’t want to add to your stress, stop:

  • Ignoring the problem, hoping it will go away. Higher levels of stress rarely alleviate without work.
  • Lying to others by telling them you are okay. It is not fair to them or you.
  • Believing what you feel is bad or wrong. It is not a failure on your part that you are experiencing these symptoms.
  • Relying on alcohol or other drugs to reduce your symptoms. Self-medication never improves symptoms — it only adds more problems.
  • Thinking things will never get better. Pessimism only makes situations seem worse.

Avoiding the negatives will help with you depression, anxiety, and panic, but to get the kind of success you are looking for, you must take active steps. If you want to reduce your stress, start:

  • Setting aside time each day to think about your thoughts, pay attention to your feelings, and observe your behaviors. Even if the results are uncomfortable, they will move you forward.
  • Talking to trusted friends, family members, and coworkers about how you feel and what you are thinking. Seek out those with a good history of being nonjudgmental to have your feelings validated.
  • Balancing time alone with time with others. Being alone is necessary at times, especially when enduring a cancer diagnosis — but too much can be lonely and isolating.
  • Focusing on your physical health. When illnesses develop, some people stop tending to their needs out of frustration. Eating well, sleeping well, and exercising to your ability will remain important throughout your diagnosis and treatment.
  • Attending therapy. Issues of depression, anxiety, and panic can be too overwhelming and confusion to tackle alone. A therapist can help accomplish the above tips more effectively.

Cancer is going to exert its will over you as it affects your physical and mental health. Understanding the impact, what can hurt your prospects, and what can help will allow you to maintain your well-being and courage to move forward.