Raising Awareness of Anxiety in Cancer Patients

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which is an opportunity to learn more about mental health issues in our society and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.

While many advances have been made in the funding and treatment of mental illness in the United Stated, and today, there is considerably less stigma related to having a mental illness, there is still a long way to go.

I’ve worked as a mental health counselor for over 20 years in oncology clinics and hospitals where I assessed and counseled cancer patients and their caregivers. Some patients were initially puzzled when their oncologist referred them to me for assessment because they worried their doctor thought they were crazy.

I got used to explaining that no one thought they were crazy. Instead, I explained there are many common emotional and psychological challenges when battling a cancer diagnosis, and their oncologist wanted them to be aware of those challenges. In addition, their doctor wanted them to understand the resources available to them if they begin to experience some emotional distress.

There is a wide range of completely understandable emotions that go along with any diagnosis of cancer. Mesothelioma is known to be incurable and we know cancer patients struggle even more emotionally and psychologically when their prognosis is poor.

Anxiety Common Among Cancer Patients

Cancer patients, including those with mesothelioma, often report symptoms of anxiety and depression, and decades of research in the field of psycho-oncology support this fact. Because of the prevalence of emotional distress (mostly symptoms of anxiety and depression), many cancer treatment centers now employ counselors to help their patients deal with those issues.

Research indicates that 10-35 percent of cancer patients are diagnosed with anxiety. The variation in the data most likely stems from differences in how researchers define and measure anxiety in their study.

Anecdotally, I have found that a vast majority of cancer patients experience uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety at some point during their treatment and into survival.

The most common symptoms of anxiety cancer patients reported to me include: Uncontrollable and intrusive worrying about the unknown and of death, panic symptoms when faces with certain procedures or treatments, poor sleep, agitation and irritability.

While anxiety is common and completely understandable in mesothelioma patients, counseling, anti-anxiety medications or both can treat it.

Most oncologists are aware of the prevalence of anxiety among their patients. They regularly prescribe medications on a short-term basis for their patients who have anxiety or sleep problems because of the condition.

Counseling focuses on raising awareness of anxiety triggers, monitoring worrying thoughts and teaching coping skills to reduce anxiety.

Managing Depression

Depression is slightly less common than anxiety in cancer patients. There are many potential contributors to depression when someone has cancer. These can include:

  • Side effects of chemotherapy or other treatment medications

  • Fatigue

  • Loss of ability to engage in regular activities or work

  • Changes in relationships

  • Fear of the unknown, pain or death.

Depression, much like anxiety, is also manageable with medication, counseling or a combination of both. Oncologists routinely assess for and treat depression with anti-depressants.

Many mesothelioma patients are overwhelmed with emotional distress when they are diagnosed. Some may develop anxiety or depressive disorders during or after their treatment. It is important to continue to talk about the prevalence of emotional or psychological issues in cancer patients.

That will help patients and loved ones stay vigilant about these issues, feel comfortable seeking treatment if needed and know where to look for mental health care.

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