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How to Cope with Typical Emotional Side Effects of Cancer Treatments

In addition to its numerous physical effects, cancer and its treatments can invoke many emotions. Being upset by your diagnosis and afraid of what’s going to happen to you and your future is normal, but if any emotion debilitates you and you’re unable to function, you need to seek help.

There are numerous sources of emotional support at your disposal, so you should never feel alone. In addition to friends and family, there are psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, counselors, chaplains, and support groups (online and in-person). Some of these professionals may be accessible directly at your cancer center, but if not, your oncology office can point you in the right direction.

Depression after cancer diagnosis

You may feel very sad after a cancer diagnosis. This response is completely normal. Feeling sad doesn’t mean you have depression. It’s only when feelings of sadness become unrelenting and affect your ability to function normally that depression may be the underlying problem.

Additional symptoms to look for include a lack of desire to engage in activities that previously interested you, pronounced fatigue, altered sleep and eating habits, distractedness, nervousness, and frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

If you have any of these symptoms, particularly thoughts of suicide, talk to your healthcare team. They’ll be able to determine if you need additional support resources and direct you accordingly. Also, discussing how you feel with your family and other loved ones may be therapeutic. Many studies have shown talk therapy to be very effective in treating depression.

There are also things you can do to help prevent or improve depression. Food can play a key role in how you feel. Several vitamins and nutrients have shown benefit in helping improve mood, including vitamin D, folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and omega-3 fatty acids. Make sure you get enough of these nutrients daily.

Another key dietary strategy is to keep blood glucose levels stable. Having them drop too low or get too high can cause your mood to worsen. When blood glucose levels get too low, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin are released, and when there are frequent blood glucose spikes, your body’s insulin response may become compromised.

Keeping blood glucose levels stable keeps insulin and glucagon levels stable, which in turn helps keep your serotonin levels stable. Serotonin is thought to contribute to feelings of happiness and well-being.

Finally, although depression may keep you from getting up, activity has been shown to be a potent weapon to fight depression. Taking a walk, going swimming, doing yoga, gardening, and anything that gets your heart rate up can release endorphins, elevating your mood.

Stress as a response to cancer and treatment

Stress can be physical, mental, or emotional and is your body’s normal response to demanding stimuli. Because a cancer diagnosis can rock your world and place considerable demands on your time and emotional reserves, you may experience a variety of different stresses.

During these times, your body may release stress hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and adrenaline, which not only help you react to these situations, but also increase your blood pressure, heart rate, and blood glucose levels.

Chronic stress (stress that doesn’t go away) can lead to a variety of health issues, including digestive problems like diarrhea, cardiovascular issues like high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), and a weakened immune system, increasing your risk of viral infections. Chronic stress also can lead to headaches, insomnia, and anxiety, which ultimately can lead to depression.

Although the feelings invoked by stress are quite natural, you can do things to help alleviate your body’s stress response and prevent your stress from becoming chronic. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and getting enough sleep are all essential.

Anxiety during your cancer journey

The terms anxiety and stress are often used synonymously. Although they may be related, they’re actually quite different. Stress may lead to anxiety, which can best be described as a feeling of fear. Because cancer invokes more fear than almost any other disease, it’s to be expected that you’ll feel quite a bit of anxiety during your cancer journey, particularly when you’re waiting for test results.

Although fleeting anxiety isn’t a problem, if anxiety becomes paralyzing and leads to an inability to function, your anxiety may have developed into an anxiety disorder, and you should discuss your symptoms with your healthcare team to see if additional interventions are warranted.

You can do things to help with your anxiety. First, be sure to talk to your oncologist about your cancer and ask questions if you have concerns or something is unclear. If you have any particular fears over your diagnosis, treatments, or prognosis, don’t be afraid to express them. Fears are often far worse than the reality, and having open, frank discussion can be a critical first step to achieving relief or at least substantially diminishing your fears.

Chemo brain

Chemo brain is a term often used to describe an unsettling feeling after chemotherapy of not being fully normal, either with regard to thought processes or the ability to effectively carry out normal daily activities. Some people say it’s like being in a fog, and these fog-like feelings have been reported to last for days, weeks, or even months after chemotherapy.

If you experience symptoms that seem to fill the “chemo brain” bill, it’s important to discuss this with your healthcare team. They may be able to identify a cause for these symptoms and make changes to your regimen to eliminate or at least improve these negative effects.

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