A cancer diagnosis forces us to confront our mortality and all the fears and losses associated with it. It can turn your world upside down, disrupt your life, and threaten the roles, purposes, and goals that give you meaning and satisfaction. Therefore, feelings of fear, sadness and pain can be a normal reaction to an abnormal, difficult and unusual situation such as the one that occurs during the process of cancer diagnosis and treatment. However, when these normal emotions persist and begin to interfere with one’s daily functioning, then it can manifest as clinical depression.
Depression tends to undermine the will to live, weakens resilience, and compromises the courage, strength, and determination needed to face cancer and endure necessary medical treatments. It also increases the risk of noncompliance and poor tolerance of medical treatments. Therefore, it can make the cancer experience more difficult and hinder overall adjustment and quality of life.
Ideally, psychosocial support should be part of each patient’s cancer management plan from the start and should also involve primary caregivers and the support system, as they may have their own concerns, emotional distress and fears for the patient.
Tips for Managing Depression During Cancer Treatment
1. Identify the symptoms of depression
The first step would be to learn and identify the signs and symptoms of depression. For example, difficulty accepting the diagnosis, persistent moodiness, crying spells, increased irritability, decreased interest in things once enjoyed, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness.
2. Avoid toxic positivity
While it is important to stay positive during cancer treatment, it is also important to remember that you are allowed to experience and express other emotions. Allow yourself to cry when necessary: Tears serve as a natural response to distress. It’s easier to be optimistic when you don’t feel caged by your emotions and thoughts.
Accept that it is normal to feel some degree of worry, fear, and moodiness when your life is interrupted. Many clients have told me that “I shouldn’t feel this way. It’s wrong. I must be positive all the time” – this is an unrealistic expectation at best. However, if you are having difficulty with acceptance, seek professional help before your distress levels rise.
4. Curiosity about cancer
I’m sure you have many questions about your diagnosis and treatment plan; have them cleared up by your oncologist. This uncertainty can lead to feelings of helplessness and worsen existing fears. Don’t turn to the internet for answers as this can play into your fears and concerns.
5. Be diet conscious
Make sure you get proper nutrition, fluid intake, and sleep. Eat small, regular, home-cooked meals. If you’re struggling with these concerns, talk to your oncologist so you can work on creating a plan for them. You can also see a psychologist for sleep problems.
6. Avoid alcohol and drugs
Addictions will not alleviate your problems during this time. Stay away from alcohol and drugs that could make you feel worse.
Make sure you get some exercise every day for your physical and mental well-being – let your physical health guide you on the type and duration of exercise. Consider doing yoga.
8. Focus on the things you can control
Don’t try to control what you can’t. It will be useless.
9. Take each day as it comes:
Set small goals and little by little build your goals. Give yourself a pat on the back for finishing your goals.
10. Create your own support system:
Surround yourself with friends and family who can lift your mood just by being there and who allow you to speak freely, thereby making difficult decisions seem a little easier. Sometimes just knowing you have someone to lean on without judgment can also help ease heartache. So yes, it is important to have a strong support system during cancer treatment.
11. Ask for help when needed:
You may consider having someone attend your doctor’s appointments or tests with you for support.
12. Keep the lines of communication open:
Diagnosis and treatment can be scary, but sharing what you’re feeling with those you feel comfortable talking to can reduce some of that fear and worry. You can set your limits on when and how much you want to talk about your cancer experience.
13. Try cognitive reframing:
By this, we mean changing the way you think about and look at a situation so that you see the glass as half full instead of half empty. A patient once joked with me that she was saving a ton of money on haircuts now that she was undergoing chemotherapy. While this didn’t change her concern about her hair loss, it did help her cope better.
14. Relaxation exercises:
Deep breathing exercises like 4-7-8 (inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, exhale for a count of 8) or progressive muscle relaxation exercises can go a long way in calming your nerves.
15. Enjoy safe hobbies:
Continue to pursue or start new hobbies, as long as they don’t put you at medical or immune-related risk. For example, avoid hobbies that require you to be part of large groups in person to reduce the risk of infection when your counts are low.
16. Start journaling:
Multiple clients of mine have found this extremely cathartic. Since then, some have turned their diary-recorded experiences into small booklets to share with other patients and/or caregivers. This gave them a renewed sense of purpose through the cancer experience.
17. Use visualization:
During stressful and/or low periods, visualize a calm and safe space for yourself. This safe space can be different for everyone.
18. Join a support group:
You can be yourself in a cancer support group and openly discuss any of your fears without judgment, knowing that everyone is going through a similar situation and can relate to you and you to them.
19. Consider additional therapies:
Look into music, dance, expressive art, or yoga therapies, as they can help you gain a sense of control over the situation while you work on other concerns. I have found music therapy to be extremely beneficial to clients, including those who resist traditional forms of therapy.
20. Seek Expert Advice:
Ask your oncologist for a referral to a psychologist/psycho-oncologist. They will help you overcome the multitude of thoughts and fears that go through your head. A psycho-oncologist addresses the psychological, social, behavioral, spiritual, and ethical concerns of your cancer experience. These concerns tend to vary based on a number of factors, including the type and stage of cancer, treatment plan, side effects and difficulties experienced so far, and pre-existing concern that may influence the disease process.