Nurturing Mental Wellness: Understanding the Emotional Impact of Cancer and Strategies for Coping

A cancer diagnosis can bring a slew of distressing thoughts, feelings, and changes to your life. Learn more about these effects & get tips to reduce distress.


Kim Virrueta, MS, AMFT, APCC

6/4/20237 min read

emotional effects of cancer and coping tips - kim virrueta therapist counselor corona, riverside CA
emotional effects of cancer and coping tips - kim virrueta therapist counselor corona, riverside CA

A cancer diagnosis can bring about a rollercoaster of emotions and significantly affect mental well-being. From the moment of diagnosis, someone is thrust into a nightmarish world where nothing is the same: the body has betrayed them; their future is no longer guaranteed; and every day is a confusing puzzle filled with treatment options, tests, and fearful possibilities. Today, I’ll explore the psychological impact of cancer and offer practical coping strategies for patients and their loved ones to navigate this challenging journey.

Psychological Impact of Cancer

A cancer diagnosis can bring emotions such as fear, sadness, anxiety, stress, and overwhelm. It is normal to experience these emotions, given the uncertainty and life changes associated with cancer. According to a study by Arvanitou & colleagues (2023), anxiety and depression are common among cancer patients and can negatively impact their overall quality of life, ability to comply with treatments, and survival rates. Understanding and addressing these emotional challenges is therefore crucial for overall well-being.

Anxiety and Fear: A cancer diagnosis can trigger anxiety and fear. Uncertainty about treatment outcomes and the impact on daily life can be overwhelming. It is important to recognize these emotions as normal reactions to a difficult and unpredictable situation. Coming to a place of acceptance about this new reality can be a helpful approach for coping with anxiety and fear. The more someone fights against what is happening and refuses to accept reality, the more distress they are likely to feel as a result.

This is not to say that thinking, “I’m glad I have cancer” is the answer. However, it can help to see cancer in a more psychologically flexible way. What does this look like? It might include thoughts like:

  • Lots of people are going through cancer, and now I’m one of them.

  • Having cancer isn’t necessarily a death sentence. I’m a fighter.

  • I can learn to live with cancer and embrace this next chapter in my story.

  • There are more treatment options now than at any other time in history.

  • I will make the most out of each day, regardless of the outcome.

Anxiety and fear are often centered on not only the cancer itself but also on the treatments, tests, and procedures. Going through physical pain & discomfort can be a major source of distress. Feelings of dread about future experiences are common and an expected reaction.

It is so important to talk about how you’re feeling with someone you trust and to avoid shaming yourself for how you’re feeling. Cultural, societal, family-based, and gender-based “norms” can cause us to have shame reactions such as punishing ourselves for having certain feelings, stuffing them down, being stoic when in pain, and not expressing ourselves.

I like to remind my clients that all humans have emotions, and they are there for a reason. Emotions are like “alerts” that tell us to pay attention to a need that we have. For example, if you’re feeling isolated and alone you likely need more social support from loved ones or from others who are going through cancer. Addressing our feelings can reduce their intensity and help us to feel supported, strengthened, and ready to face them.

Depression and Sadness: Depression often accompanies cancer due to the physical symptoms, social isolation, changes to our life, and existential concerns. About 25% of people with cancer experience clinical levels of depression (Bickel & colleagues, 2022).

It is crucial to address these emotional concerns and to seek support to improve overall well-being. Being in pain is physically and mentally draining. You might notice that you’re irritable and “snappy” when pain levels are high. This happens to many people and can be confusing for everyone. Someone who usually can let things “roll off their back” might be unpredictably short on patience and lash out at whomever is in their path.

Noticing your pain levels when this happens can help you name what is going on and to build self-compassion (“I’m in pain right now and it’s draining me of patience”). Being open about how you’re feeling can also result in more empathy from others. Family & friends will better understand not to take it personally if you are short on patience with them. It may even help them to remind you to advocate for yourself in terms of pain management with your medical team.

Sadness and depressive symptoms are an expected reaction to a cancer diagnosis, whether that is for a short time after diagnosis or something that lasts throughout the cancer journey. Your oncologist may recommend a consultation with a psychiatrist to assess the need for an anti-depressant medication to help with coping.

Medication can be an important piece of the puzzle, but often is not the “answer.” Learning coping skills, emotional self-regulation, and social support are also needed to holistically address the “whole person” as they go through cancer. Spiritual care is often one of the most helpful aspects of mental health during cancer due to suddenly facing the possibility of death. In other words, it is important to address the person’s physical health, psychological wellness, social support, cultural values, and spiritual beliefs (“what happens after I die?”).

Stress and Overwhelm: Cancer-related stress can lead to feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and out of control. Coping with treatment, managing appointments, loss of work, and navigating healthcare systems can contribute to significant distress. Financial burdens and inequities in these areas can bring feelings of anger, injustice, and despair.

Medical social workers are excellent sources of county and state-based assistance in these areas and can promote patient advocacy, access to resources, and connections within the community. Most states have funding for access to 211 (dial 211 on your phone or type that into Google). Your 211 can connect you with local organizations in a number of areas including food, shelter, and mental health services.

10 Tips for Better Mental Health While Living with Cancer

  1. Building a Support System: Seeking support from friends, family, and healthcare professionals is essential. Sharing your feelings and concerns with others can provide comfort and reduce distress. A study by Merlizzi et al. (2019) found that social support significantly contributes to improved psychological well-being, quality of life, and posttraumatic growth in cancer patients. These benefits can help someone with cancer better adjust to their treatments as well as the changes that come with living with cancer.

  2. Practicing Self-Care: Taking care of yourself during cancer treatment is vital for mental wellness. Engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation can help reduce stress and improve mood. This could involve hobbies, listening to music, or spending time in nature. It is also important to eat nutritious meals, exercise within your abilities, and get enough sleep. Pullen and associates (2018) suggested that physical activity positively impacts both physical and psychological functioning in cancer patients: reduced pain and exhaustion; lowered symptoms of depression and anxiety; and reduced mortality from breast cancer.

  3. Open Communication: Communicating your needs and concerns with healthcare providers, friends, and family members can help alleviate anxiety and foster support. Honest and open conversations can lead to better understanding and collaborative decision-making. Expressing emotions can be therapeutic. Talk to someone you trust, keep a journal, join a support group, or find a therapist so you can share your feelings and experiences. It is important to validate and process your emotions. A 2017 study by Lai and colleagues highlighted the importance of cancer patients sharing their experience with trusted family members and friends in reducing distress and improving quality of life.

  4. Developing Coping Skills: Finding healthy ways to cope with stress can enhance mental well-being. Deep breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and mindfulness meditation are simple practices that can promote calmness and emotional resilience.

  5. Practice Relaxation Techniques: Engage in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, guided imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation. These techniques can help reduce anxiety, promote calmness, and enhance overall well-being.

  6. Engage in Mindfulness: Mindfulness involves being present in the moment without judgment. Engage in activities that promote mindfulness, such as meditation or mindful walking. This can help reduce stress and increase self-awareness. A meta-analysis of 9 studies found that mindfulness-based interventions had a positive effect on stress, mood, depressive symptoms, anxiety, perception of stress, quality of life, physical health, energy levels, existential issues, and state of mind in cancer patients (Labelle et al., 2015).

  7. Maintain Physical Wellness: Take care of your physical health to support mental well-being. Engage in regular physical activity within your capabilities, eat a balanced diet, and get enough sleep. Physical wellness is interconnected with emotional wellness.

  8. Embracing Positivity: Focusing on positive aspects of life and engaging in activities that bring happiness and distraction can improve emotional well-being. This could include spending time with loved ones, pursuing hobbies, or enjoying creative outlets.

  9. Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion. Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer a loved one. Acknowledge your strengths and achievements, and be patient with yourself as you navigate through challenges.

  10. Engage in Pleasurable Activities: Find joy and distraction in activities you enjoy, and incorporate more laughter into your day. Engage in hobbies, watch funny shows/movies, tell jokes, spend time with loved ones, listen to music, watch movies, or pursue creative outlets. In a 2015 study of 14 cancer survivors in Norway, Roaldsen and colleagues found that humor relieved symptoms of anxiety, enhanced problem-solving skills, preserved important relationships, was an outlet for communicating difficult topics, boosted coping ability, served as a protective factor in living with the risk of dying from cancer. These activities can provide a sense of normalcy and happiness amidst the challenges of cancer.

10 Tips and Practical Strategies for Better Mental Health living with cancer
10 Tips and Practical Strategies for Better Mental Health living with cancer
emotional impact of cancer - find a counselor therapist in orange county, ca
emotional impact of cancer - find a counselor therapist in orange county, ca

You Can Do This…Get Support and Be Intentional

Cancer can have a profound impact on mental health, but there are strategies to nurture your emotional well-being. By understanding the full effects of cancer and implementing coping strategies, you can improve your quality of life. Remember, it is okay to seek professional help from therapists or counselors specializing in cancer support. Your mental well-being matters, and with the right strategies and support, you can navigate the emotional challenges of cancer with resilience, grace, and strength.

Get in touch with me today if you are looking for someone to help you navigate through the emotional highs and lows of your cancer journey.

get counseling support for cancer - find a therapist counselor in southern california
get counseling support for cancer - find a therapist counselor in southern california