Monday 12 July, 2021

Psychologist Tips for a Mental Cancer Hangover

We recently hosted a Psychologist Session with Hana Jamali, where she answered a few questions from the community about life after cancer treatment, specifically the mental cancer hangover. 

A cancer hangover is what many people who’ve gone through cancer treatment and are considered healthy go through as they return to “normal” life. It’s both physical, not feeling as energetic or as “at home” in your body as before cancer, and mental – the worries, relapse, scanxiety, lostness. The list goes on, but psychologist, Hana, addresses some of the overarching themes of a mental cancer hangover and how to cope with it. 

You can watch the whole conversation with Hana here, where we discuss fear of the unknown and she answers these questions live.

What we’ll cover in this blog:
How to continue living life rather than worrying about what you’re missing out on
How to manage worry after cancer treatment
How do you deal with scanxiety?
Loss of identity and coping with fear of life after future

How do you continue living the life you have rather than worrying about the life you may not have? 

When any kind of crisis happens, people think that life would’ve been linear and that you’d live as you thought you would live. But the reality is that things change all of the time  – you don’t know how your life would be, with or without cancer. Many things are outside of our control. But what you do know when you have a cancer diagnosis is that something (cancer) happened that made this change very present for you.

The most important thing is to not blame yourself when you’re in that situation, thinking about the life that you didn’t have or can’t have now. It’s important to grieve. We’ve talked about curiosity and being present as a way to cope with change, but it’s also important to be able to grieve and be sad about what you feel you might be missing out on. If you don’t grieve, you risk denying a part of yourself that really wants to be heard. Take your time, make sure that you grieve, but do both things – grieve, but also do things that you want to do and can do in the capacity you have. 

It also depends where you are in your experience with cancer. When Fabian, Co-founder at War On Cancer, was newly diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, he wanted to go back to his old life. But now, after going through cancer and looking back, he’s learning to approach and embrace the idea of change. Something’s changed, but is that all bad? Things change everywhere, all the time, and a lot is out of our control. He encourages us to learn to cherish change more. Being very set in your ways and having a set plan for life and sticking to it rigidly takes energy and you need to decide where it’s worth spending your energy there. 

What can you do to minimize worry at the end of active treatment? 

It’s very individual for every person after ending active treatment, but there is a risk of feeling worried. Sometimes it can help to be present and curious about why those feelings come up at those specific times or in those moments. Also, if you’re worried, let yourself worry! It’s okay. You don’t have to fix it or change it. If it makes you restless, be restless. Be kind to yourself in that situation. Ask yourself: now that I’m so worried, what do I need? What would be helpful for me? Don’t do this with the intention to make the worry go away, rather, genuinely as yourself what you need in that moment. Think of yourself as your own friend: if a friend was worried, you’d probably send them a text or call them or send them chocolate or talk to them. Ask yourself, what do I need now that I’m worried, and then tell your friends and family that. Share with them that this situation makes you feel worried and what would be helpful to cope with that. If you don’t know, say that! “I don’t know what I need or what my reactions will be, but I think I might be worried.” What matters is communicating your fears and needs – being open and honest with yourself, and others. 

How do you deal with scanxiety? 

It’s about exposure. Anxiety usually builds up. What happens when you have a lot of anxiety about a specific situation is that you’ve probably put a lot of energy and time into thinking about what could go wrong. A lot of people say that the actual situation is not as hard as they thought it would be, but the build-up towards that situation is a lot harder. So, if you know what it is you’re scared of, visualize it. Write it down, feel it, and talk about it. 

When you’re talking about it, try and tell your loved ones not to calm you down but to be with you in the fear. Instead of saying things like “everything will be fine” or “you will be okay,” all of which are really nice that people say to be loving, can be counterproductive. That’s because, in that moment, those kinds of comments lower your anxiety, but in the long run you actually stabilize your anxiety. What you achieve when you expose yourself is that temporarily, your anxiety goes up and you’re challenged to be present with it and face it. Only then will it diminish and have less power over you, and in the least, find tools to handle it next time you’re feeling anxious because it becomes less of a foreign feeling or fear.

While you’re exposing yourself to different situations linked to the scan, make sure you have everything you need to handle that anxiety – sleep well, eat well, do things that matter to you. What you can also do is to sit down for a set period of time every day and visualize the situations in order to awake your anxiety – get to know it and how it works. That’s when it loses power over you. 

Need help in doing that? Check out this Letting Go practice with Amy, who guides you through a technique to better handle negative or difficult emotions and improve your mental health. 

Loss of identity and coping with fear of life after cancer

Hana says that, in her experience, a common pattern is that people are not often fearful when going through treatment, having symptoms and feeling sick – during that period, you’re coping and trying to survive the everyday and there’s less energy put towards thoughts about the future. Rather, it’s in the moments when you’re feeling healthy, like you’re getting your life back, starting to dream about the future and what you would like to do when the fear kicks in. 

This comes down to the fact that when you find something that is meaningful or matters to you, you also fear losing it. A lot of people who have experienced cancer say that when they’re in their sickest moments, they’re actually quite active because they know what concrete actions they need to take to get through that situation – what to eat or summoning energy to take a shower, for example. But when they gain more freedom, more space and time, that’s when it hits. What is life going to be like now after this? What if I get my life back? How do I want to spend it? And that’s what usually sparks this fear and sometimes, anxiety. 

Another aspect of fear or anxiety is that there are usually other feelings that trigger those feelings. After you’ve felt a real fear of the unknown, feelings that are similar or in the same “family” as those feelings can trigger those thoughts. It’s how our brain is wired – things that are similar to something else get interlinked.

For example, if you’re feeling stressed in life and fall out of a routine or mindset that is valuable and good for you, you’re more likely to trigger fear of the unknown or the future or your identity and these thoughts start to appear. They’re not always bad but it’s important to get the basics in order to help your mental health deal with these thoughts – get your sleep and eat well. This is also preventative because sometimes feelings of hunger or tiredness or stress can trigger anxiety because our brain can get those feelings mixed up. Have your routines as a way of helping yourself to handle when you do get fearful.  

Have other questions about how to deal with life after cancer? Join the War On Cancer app to ask people who’ve lived through it and know what it’s like, or share your wisdom with others. Plus, keep an eye out for our monthly Psychologist Sessions with Hana in the app!

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