Guest Commentary | How to help cancer patients struggling with mental health
By KATHY TOLENTINO - Executive Director of the Southwest Florida-based Partners in Care Foundation | Nov 3, 2023
The impact of cancer is undeniably stressful, and patients can experience a wide range of emotions, from diagnosis through treatment and into survivorship.
Most feelings that cancer patients experience during this difficult time are normal, and to be expected. However, these feelings can potentially affect your loved one’s ability to cope and stay on track with treatment. It is estimated that one out of three cancer patients in hospitals has a common mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.
Yet research also suggests a connection between good mental health and cancer survival.
A study of more than 50,000 veterans treated for lung cancer at federal VA hospitals found that those who received professional mental health support lived longer than those who did not.
Experts can’t definitely say why this correlation exists. One possibility: cancer patients struggling with their mental health may be less likely to stick to treatment plans and get preventive screenings, and more likely to miss treatment appointments.
Tips for caregivers
The physical and emotional toll of cancer is unquestionably nerve-wracking. Cancer patients are dealing with the stress of their diagnosis, the changes in lifestyle and within their bodies, trying to keep up with their treatments, dealing with side effects, worrying about financial resources and so much more.
Unsurprisingly, some cancer patients may experience depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. And certain risk factors make it more likely that your loved one could also be struggling with mental health issues while dealing with cancer, including those who are older, male or have advanced stage cancer or a history of depression or other mental health conditions.
Be on the lookout for signs that your loved ones may be struggling and need help, including new or worsening substance abuse, increased risky behavior or a disregard for their treatment plan.
Other signs may include:
• Appearing nervous or shaky
• Abrupt mood swings
• Trouble concentrating or focusing
• Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
• Sleep issues like insomnia, oversleeping or nightmares
• Angry outbursts
• Pulling away from family and friends
It’s important to point out that some of these warning signs could be a side effect of cancer treatment, like changes in sleep or concentration. So, note the changes you see and be prepared to have an honest and open conversation with your loved one, as well as their cancer care team.
Talking about the changes you have seen and raising your concerns will not make your loved one feel worse or increase the risk of suicide. However, once you’ve brought up the subject, it is your time to listen. Do not disregard their feelings, positive or negative.
It is OK to be straightforward with them about what you have witnessed and your concerns, but do respect their boundaries and provide them with the support they ask for.
If your loved one is hesitant about getting mental health assistance, you can encourage them to take a self-screening online through the Mental Health America website. Conversely, if your loved one needs help from a mental health professional, support their decision.
You can help by contacting their cancer care team for a recommendation or referral and talking to their health insurance company to understand what mental health coverage is available. If the cancer diagnosis is recent, you can even be proactive about asking for mental health support services, just in case, because speaking to a mental health provider can positively impact a cancer patient’s quality of life and help them work through their feelings and emotions.
You could be invited to some therapy sessions to talk through your loved one’s struggles and learn positive coping techniques. Also, ask the cancer care team if there are any physical activities that you and your loved one could do together to help them relax, such as brief walks outside, yoga, meditation or massages.
Create a mental health safety plan
Once your loved one is receiving professional help for their mental health, work together with them and their provider to create a mental health safety plan. A mental health safety plan aims to reduce the risk of self-harm or suicide. While your loved one may not be at risk, anyone can benefit from a safety plan because it can help identify pain points and list effective coping strategies. Begin by answering the following questions:
• What are my warning signs that I may be in crisis?
• What are my coping strategies if I’m alone?
• What can I do to make myself feel safe?
• What triggers should I avoid?
• Who should I contact if I need help? (include contact information for personal and professional support)
• At what point do I need emergency help?
By answering these questions together, both you and your loved one will be able to manage their mental health struggles.
Finally, as a caregiver or the loved one of a cancer patient, your mental health may be struggling, too. You are not alone, and it’s vital to seek the professional support you need to be there for your loved one with cancer.
Kathy Tolentino is executive director of the Southwest Florida-based Partners in Care Foundation. To learn more, visit yourpartnersincare.org/apply.