In our live event a couple of weeks ago, we sat down with psychologist Dag Härdfeldt who works with newly diagnosed cancer patients in primary care and helps them with the initial shock. Our conversation focused on how to cope with a cancer diagnosis. For all of you who couldn’t make it, here is some of his insight in how to cope with a cancer diagnosis.
Does a cancer diagnosis affect your mental health and if so, how?
Let’s break this question down into two parts.
The first part has a simple answer: Yes, absolutely. It affects mental health without a shred of doubt. In general, people who are diagnosed with cancer are three times as likely (27%) to experience depression and anxiety disorders in relation to the general population (9%).
The second part of the answer is more complex, and touches on the way in which a cancer diagnosis affects us. This is because you can’t speak about cancer as if it were one problem or type of disease. It’s more effective to talk about cancer as an attack on the body that comes from within. Depending on where it attacks, how hard it hits, and how your defence is set up, your mental health will be affected in a variety of ways.
Understanding the type of cancer you have and who you are as a person is very important to determine how this will affect you and how you best shall fight it. Nuanced research suggests that different kinds of cancer result in different primary psychological problems. For instance, in lung cancer, the disturbance in mood can best be predicted by the amount of physical impairment that the cancer created. However, with breast cancer, fear of intimacy was more prominent. Skin cancer’s primary cause of distress is related to body satisfaction.
That’s why there is no clear-cut way to predict how cancer will affect you, unlike other diagnoses like, for example, depression, where the symptoms you will experience are easier to predict.
There is not a clear causality between what exactly happens to your mental health when you are diagnosed with cancer. Instead, what happens is a complex interaction between what you as a person value in your life, what you lose due to the cancer, how much of it you lose, and finally and perhaps most importantly, how you manage that loss.
Do some people get completely spared from mental health effects after being diagnosed with cancer?
The common denominator of everyone who goes through cancer lies in loss. Every form of cancer results in some kind of loss – it can be small or big, but it’s there.
It can be a loss of physical comfort, mobility, opportunity, income, freedom, future plans, physical strength, energy, or the inability to perform things as well as you used to. It can also be a less tangible loss such as the loss of inner calm and peace, certainty that everything will be alright, or the loss of a care-free life.
Keep in mind, the loss doesn’t have to be permanent – sometimes, the loss is repaid with interest, which results in post-traumatic growth.
Want to listen in on our next conversation with Dag? Sign up for our live event on Friday, October 23rd here
Do I need a therapist after a cancer diagnosis?
According to War On Cancer’s poll from our live event, 73% of members used a therapist after being diagnosed with cancer. The other most popular ways of coping with a cancer diagnosis from our community are therapy, journaling, and physical exercise.
The benefits of therapy
There is no “one size fits all” approach for coping with cancer. If you decide to seek out professional help, your therapist will try to understand what is important to you, what kind of losses you’ve suffered, and how you’ve been coping with them so far.
Then, together, you decide on a variety of topics that can help you improve the situation. The therapy can be about improving your capacity to handle stress and worry, building up a tolerance for uncertainty, or creating a safe space to express your deepest fears about the cancer diagnosis and then leaving those fears by the door so that you can focus your energy elsewhere between sessions.
Other examples of topics to focus on are discovering ways you’d like to handle the situation with family and friends or keep in touch with the things you love even if you can’t perform them in the same way you’re used to. You can become more assertive in dealing with doctors and other professions that you’re dependent on. Some people want to make it about self-growth and improvement while others want to learn how to let go of plans they had that will never come into fruition and replace them with new plans that still feel meaningful.
You don’t need to have it all figured out beforehand. Therapy is about discovering what you want it to be about.
However, not everyone may need a therapist.
A therapist is by no means a requirement to achieve the aforementioned things. Some people prefer handling these topics with friends and family, on their on, through journaling, internal monologues, or self-help books. New, exciting options like the War On Cancer App serves to improve the mental health of everyone affected by cancer by creating a space to connect with others who really get it.
The question to ask yourself is “can I achieve the things I want to achieve by myself or with my loved ones, or would it help me to achieve these with a professional?” The end goal is always to do what’s best for your mental health.
How can I prepare my loved ones for a poor cancer diagnosis?
Assuming you’re not dealing with small children, Dag’s experience points to the fact that family and loved ones appreciate being invited to participate in the experience. Usually, allowing loved ones to help is more helpful for everyone involved, instead of trying to constantly assure them that you’re fine and they shouldn’t worry. Let them in.
In general, loved ones can sense if you’re not giving them the full truth and this causes stress and tension. They see you and know it. Allowing them to live with the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going can be more damaging to both you and them. Broadly speaking, lay your card on the table. The truth is the best answer.
How do I cope with relapse, a second cancer diagnosis?
This is tough. Dag recommends taking charge of your treatment in the capacity you’re capable of. With metastatic cancer, maybe the treatment can play a large role in your life. It helps if you’re part of leading that treatment as opposed to being a follower of it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t settle for unclear answers, and be involved and informed. Ask for second opinions, options, and discuss the specific goals of the treatment.
For lack of a better phrase, dare to be a pain in the ass.
It’s not all that different from the Serenity Prayer that goes “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Focus your strength on what is susceptible to change, such as your treatment.
If you don’t have the energy to do that, it’s important to not go through cancer alone. Seek out a loved one or a professional because they can help you formulate what needs to be done. Don’t walk alone. Have a loved one with you at the doctor’s. Recruit your support team.
Want to know more? Download the War On Cancer App and get access to our live event with Dag Härdfeldt about how to cope with a cancer diagnosis.