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Surviving the Emotional Roller Coaster of Cancer

by Anis Rashid, MD

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Living with cancer is like being on a roller coaster ride, one that affects not only your physical health but also your emotional and spiritual well-being. A variety of emo­tions may surface as you go through each phase of the ride – from that first big hill of your initial diagnosis to the ups and downs of active treatment to the unexpected twists and turns of survivorship.

Everyone’s situation is different, but after a cancer diagnosis, it’s common for anxiety to remain high for the next few weeks. During this difficult period, you may experience feelings of fear, powerlessness, uncertainty, and a lack of knowledge about the disease.

As you learn more details about your cancer, you are flooded with volumes of information and face difficult treatment decisions. You may feel overwhelmed and fear that you’re losing control of your life, your job, and your relation­ships. You may lose sleep, as well as your appetite.

Some of the common side effects of chemotherapy, such as fatigue and loss of appetite, are similar to those of depression.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Anis Rashid

Once treatment begins and your initial anxiety starts to subside, you may be sidelined by treatment-related side effects. Cancer treatments can leave you feeling fatigued, and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting can further reduce your appetite, causing you to lose weight. You may worry that you are being a burden on your family and friends, which may lead you to be­come socially withdrawn and possibly even depressed.

Navigating life with cancer isn’t easy. But the good news is that with the aid of cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication (if needed), and support from your family, friends, and faith, you’ll be better prepared to manage these difficult emotions.

Seek Out Help
Some of the common side effects of chemotherapy, such as fatigue and loss of appetite, are similar to those of depression. A mental health provider can evaluate your symptoms and correctly diagnose you with a mood or anxiety disorder if you have one. Then, cognitive-behavioral therapy and prescribed medications can help you cope.

You may reach a point when you feel like you just don’t care anymore. This emotional numbness is alarming and needs attention. Let someone know if you’re feeling this way. Close moni­toring, medication, and psychological support from a mental health provider, as well as your family and friends, are important at this point.

Find Meaning
When diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, it’s not uncommon for a person’s faith to falter. During your cancer experience, you may find yourself searching for mean­ing in life and going through a phase of spiritual distress. If this is the case, it may be helpful to visit with a chap­lain. Taking some time to redefine your values and roles in life can also bring peace to a troubled mind.

Take Back Control
Once you achieve remission, you might expect to return to your pre-cancer state of emotional well-being, but this isn’t always the case. Instead, you may find yourself struggling with the fear of recurrence. Even a simple cough or minor abdominal pain may trigger this fear. Continued mental health assistance can help you manage these fears. Once you learn to take back control of your life by being proactive about your mental health, you can begin your path to emotional recovery.

Cancer can be a wild, twisting roller coaster ride that turns your life upside down. But with support from your family and friends and the guidance of men­tal health professionals, you’ll be better equipped to strap yourself in and hang on for the ride.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Anis Rashid is an associate professor of Psychiatry at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2014.