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Cancer Patients Need Emotional Care, Too

Besides the physical challenges of treatment, cancer patients also travel an emotional journey.

Fear, anxiety and depression can happen while dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. That’s why it is important to address how a patient is coping in addition to how he or she is physically feeling.

According to, the initial reaction to a cancer diagnosis is often shock and disbelief, followed by a period of distress characterized by mixed symptoms of anxiety, anger and depression. However, feelings of hopelessness and guilt, or feeling stuck in one of the stages above, may indicate more serious distress.

The National Cancer Institute says that approximately 15 to 25 percent of cancer patients suffer from depression. This condition is usually triggered by stress of treatments, worrying about family members and fearing the unknown.

NCI researchers found that major depression affects approximately 25 percent of patients and should be diagnosed and treated “because they have an impact on quality of life.” In worst cases, cancer patients are at a higher risk to commit suicide.

Risk factors that contribute to cancer patient depression include poorly controlled pain, more advanced stages of the disease, increased impairment and certain drugs known to heighten emotions such as corticosteroids.

In most cases, according to the American Cancer Society, cancer patients deal with some level of fear and anxiety. This obviously happens at first when they learn of their diagnosis.

The process of dealing with doctor visits, tests and treatments also cause apprehension. They also are afraid of uncontrolled pain, their mortality and how to care for other family members if they are unable to provide for them.

When a cancer patient feels overwhelmed by it all, it’s best to get help. Although more medicine might be the last thing a cancer patient wants, some antidepressants can bring relief. So, too, can counseling from a mental health professional who can help the patient sort out his or her feelings.

Here are some other ways to help, according to the American Cancer Society:

  • Encourage, but do not force, the patient to talk.
  • Share feelings and fears that you or the anxious person may be having.
  • Listen carefully to the patient’s feelings. Offer support, but don’t deny or discount feelings.
  • Remind them that it’s OK to feel sad and frustrated.
  • Get help through counseling and/or support groups.
  • Encourage the patient to use meditation, prayer or other types of spiritual support if it helps.
  • Have the patient try deep breathing and relaxation exercises, such as yoga.
  • Integrate some type of exercise into the patient’s day.

Cancer Patient Navigators also can help relieve some of the stress, especially when it comes to the unknown. They have experience in providing important information and getting the patient the resources he or she needs during treatment.

These health care professionals are trained to listen to patients, learn their needs and design a plan of action specific for their patients. They can help with securing transportation to treatments, pain management resources, support groups and in-home caregivers.