While experiencing physically draining care involved with treatment, cancer patients also battle a variety of mental health issues related to their condition. A cancer diagnosis has a huge impact on most patients and their families or caregivers. One in three people with cancer experience mental or emotional distress. Anxiety, depression, and fear are common and normal feelings that are often paired with this diagnosis.

Effects of a cancer diagnosis on mental health

There are often significant mental health effects of a cancer diagnosis, especially for those patients who have a pre-existing mental health condition. According to The National Cancer Institute:

  • Mental or emotional issues within cancer patients are most common in breast cancer (42%) and head and neck cancer (41%) patients.
  • Nearly 25% of cancer survivors experience symptoms of depression.
  • Up to 45% of cancer survivors experience anxiety.
  • Many cancer survivors also experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • Cancer survivors are twice as likely to die by suicide than the general population.

Sources of mental or emotional distress

There are numerous aspects of cancer treatment that are mentally taxing on patients. Many of the issues that arrive with a cancer diagnosis lead to intense feelings and emotional hurdles. Some of the emotional issues that cancer patients are dealing with include:

  • Fear of disease recurrence, death, suffering, or the unknown
  • Alteration of one’s identity
  • Changes in body image
  • Alteration in a person’s family or work roles
  • Perceived loss of support from friends and family or relational changes

Additionally, families and caregivers often experience negative mental health symptoms because of a cancer diagnosis. They may be battling with feelings associated with:

  • Losing a loved one
  • Frustration over not being able to “do more”
  • Carrying a heavier load at home 

It’s important that when a patient is diagnosed with cancer, they and their loved ones are cared for and supported beyond the physical issue.

Treatment beyond oncology

Mental health professionals are an integral part of the care team for patients managing a cancer diagnosis. Some of the additional treatment areas that mental health professionals can offer to cancer patients include:

  • Identifying positive coping mechanisms to manage stress such as mindfulness, relaxation techniques, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and meditation
  • Mitigating risky behaviors around smoking or substance use
  • Encouraging an active lifestyle
  • Counseling
  • Referring patients to support groups

Treating a person, not just their disease

Treatment for a cancer patient goes far beyond oncological practice, and health care providers need to make adjustments in order to treat the entire person – not just their disease. Healthcare delivery must be viewed from the perspective of a patient journey rather than an episodic encounter.

BehavioralRx® is a behavioral and cognitive science using proven psychological techniques that leverages emotional attributes (such as trust, credibility, reciprocity) and cognition (brain encoding, storage, retrieval) to motivate in-the-moment actions at home, work, and play while reducing the stress associated with the cancer journey.

Treatment providers such as Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) are applying BehavioralRx principles into their care plans to better support the holistic health of their patients. Their Concierge program features How are you doing? surveys for patients, which allows them to report on the personal, physical, and emotional issues they are experiencing. Based on the patient’s responses, escalation processes are in place to notify nurses and social workers when a patient is managing difficult challenges.

Read more

Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey Concierge Program

Learn more about the CINJ Concierge program, which provides personalized guidance for cancer patients who may be experiencing mental health issues, among others.
Read more