The Psychological Effects of Cancer

There are other effects of cancer and its treatment that are not so widely known or discussed.  I have only discovered this recently and these are side-effects that affect not only me but also those close to me who are nearest. These are the psychological effects of cancer that make everything doubly hard: for everybody.

It was only when I was chatting to my cousin about cancer suffered by another member of our family and the outbursts of temper they displayed, that I began to understand that cancer results not only in physical, but also psychological effects.  The emotional effects of chemotherapy can be just as debilitating as the physical effects. From the initial diagnosis of cancer to the final dose of chemotherapy, patients undergo levels of emotional distress well beyond a healthy limit. The emotional effects of chemotherapy can be directly related to the medication or to external factors such as family, work and social life. The range of emotional distress felt by patients depends a lot on their particular support network and  their rate of recovery.  Emotions run high for the whole family during chemotherapy.  It made sense when I thought about it, but I never had.   

I asked my husband if I had ever displayed any outbursts of temper. I was sure I had not, until he reminded me of an uncharacteristic and ugly diatribe to which I subjected my daughter during a telephone conversation.  I felt so guilty because he was right.

The outburst to which I subjected my daughter is not the only evidence of my fragile mental state during cancer treatment, at present.  When the District Nurse arrived to clean my hickman line and take my pre-chemo bloods at a time different to that arranged I lost the plot and ended up asking her to leave. Oh dear! The problem is it all seemed so logical at the time.

Chemotherapy can have an emotional impact on patients because the treatment itself is a sign of emotional self-preservation. The choice to fight cancer does not end with the first dose of the medication and patients often feel emotionally taxed when recovery is slow. The physical side effects can contribute significantly to emotional distress. Insomnia, constant nausea, weight loss, hair loss and a diminished sex life can all make a patient feel emotionally distraught. Family and friends bear their pain too.

Chemotherapy also affects patients because of a perceived burden of loss on family, friends and work. Patients may feel isolated from participating in family activities due to fatigue and medical appointments. Social life is also dramatically affected by chemotherapy due to fatigue and often shame.  Therefore, some of the classical negative emotions during chemotherapy include anger, fear, anxiety, depression and isolation. The emotional distress from chemotherapy may come from a sense of not having any control over the matter.   Cognitive function and emotional health are strongly interconnected and chemotherapy can take a serious toll on both of them. In some cases, emotional distress can affect cognitive function, while in other cases, impaired cognition can alter judgment and emotional responses during cancer treatment.

However, I have to confess that, perhaps unsurprisingly, my worst outburst to date has been reserved for my long-suffering husband. This combination of temper and depression was my worst to date.  When I asked my cancer nurse if this was a normal side effect she replied in the affirmative. My husband just said very quietly, “But that does not make if acceptable.”  Of course he is right and none of the victims of my temper deserved it.

Depression is a persistent sadness that interferes with usual activities and ability to carry out roles at home, work, community, or school. Depression may also be known as sadness, feeling “down,” despair, or hopelessness. Depression and its side effects affect both men and women.  There are several risk factors that increase the potential for development of depression in the patient with cancer.  Medications commonly prescribed for cancer patients can be one of those risk factors.  There are many classes of medications that may have depression as their side effects.  Some examples are: analgesics, anticonvulsants, antihistamines, anti-inflammatory agents, antineoplastics, chemotherapy agents, hormones, immunosuppressive agents, and steroids.

Depression during chemotherapy, and generally can be managed, but it has to be admitted first.  You need to recognise what puts you at risk of depression.  Triggers include –

    • History of depression in yourself or your family.
    • Pessimistic view of life.
    • Living with a chronic disease like cancer.
    • Stressful events in your life.
    • Effects of some medications & chemotherapy.
    • Lack of support from family or friends.
    • Unrelieved physical symptoms (like pain).
    • Alcohol or drug abuse.
    • Unrelieved grief (not working through feelings of angry about how cancer & its treatment have affected your life).
    • Any persistent change in your mood, with the signs of depression listed above.
    • If you feel suicidal you must tell someone and get help. It is not safe to be on your own at these times.  

I am told it is not unusual to have times when you feel very low after a diagnosis of cancer, and during or after treatment. Many people feel physically and emotionally exhausted from the treatment, and this can lower their mood. However, for some people affected by cancer their low mood may continue or get worse and they may need specialist help or treatment. Some people find that their sadness gives way to a situation where their mood is low most of the time for several weeks or more, and they are depressed.

The relationship between cancer and depression is complex. Depression may be triggered by the diagnosis of cancer, other issues related to the cancer and its treatment, or the impact of the cancer on a person’s life. However, depression may occur by chance or be related to other difficult events, either in the past or in the present, which are nothing to do with cancer, such as the loss of a loved one.    Depression can develop slowly, making it very difficult for either you or your family to recognise when it started. In other cases it can seem to hit you suddenly – one day you wake up and realise that you feel hopeless and helpless and are engulfed in a ‘black cloud’ or, as Winston Churchill called it “black dog” of depression.  

Depression can affect anyone at any age. It is extremely common – one in five (20%) people are affected by depression at some time in their lives. Depression is not a sign of personal failure or inability to cope. You can’t ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘snap out of it’.  Depression can usually be successfully treated. The first step to feeling better is to admit the problem, then to get appropriate help.

Valerie Penny

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Cameron Von St. James
    Nov 15, 2012 @ 20:46:31

    Hi,

    I have a quick question about your blog, would you mind emailing me when you get a chance?

    Thanks,

    Cameron

    Reply

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