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Psychology of cancer – the emotional spectrum of remission

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Most of us will experience cancer at some time in our lives – be it first hand or supporting someone who has been diagnosed. While cancer survival rates in the UK have doubled over the last 40 years – and this is hugely encouraging – we know it’s important to understand that cancer can have lasting psychological effects beyond treatment and remission. As a cancer survivor you may experience a range of mental health issues and emotions, even years after completing your cancer treatment. Or if someone close to you has had cancer, you may recognise changes in their character or personality. Others may change in ways that are subtler and harder to discern.

With this in mind, Dr Mark Winwood, our Director of Psychological Services, shares some common concerns and tips to help you or someone you know get through the difficult times.

Anxiety and depression

The after effects of cancer treatment can trigger anxiety. For example, chemotherapy can change a person’s physical appearance, from hair loss to weight gain, sometimes affecting their self-esteem. You may experience a deep sense of loss or sorrow and, should this persist or become overwhelming, it may lead to anxiety or depression, which could require psychological support or medical treatment.

Guilt

Guilt is another complex emotion that you may experience. Some cancer survivors may feel that their own personal actions and choices were responsible for causing their cancer. Others may feel remorse that they have survived cancer while others have not. Guilt is often a closely guarded emotion, but acknowledging it can be an important first step to addressing and overcoming it.

Anger

Lengthy spells in hospital for treatment can allow plenty of time for reflection and opportunities to become angry at having the disease. While anger is a normal part of the emotional response to a significant challenge or change, you may need professional support to help them to overcome it, for example through confidential counselling.

Emotional numbness

After the stresses and strains of cancer treatment, you may feel resigned and unable to take on anything more. Some cancer survivors try to protect themselves by withdrawing their feelings or adopting an indifferent attitude to life, perhaps in hope that, if the cancer does return, they’ll know what to do.

If you or someone you know is struggling with these or any other emotions after remission, here are some things you can do.

  • If you’ve survived cancer, opening up about your feelings can help. We know that cancer can become an integral part of an individual’s identity so it’s important to share your concerns.
  • If you’re supporting someone who’s had cancer, talking and taking time to listen should help to give you a better understanding of the range of emotions they’re experiencing.
  • As a carer of someone who has had cancer, it’s important that you also look after yourself and take time out now and then.
  • Significant anniversaries, such as the date of diagnosis or completion of treatment, can trigger renewed concern for some. A visit to your GP may allay your concerns. Follow-up appointments, which involve a physical examination, with the purpose of detecting recurrence or the spread of cancer to other parts of the body, are also a valuable opportunity to ask questions and raise any concerns.
  • It’s important for both patients and carers to take part in enjoyable activities – and plan ahead so that there’s always something to look forward to.
  • Remember, you are not alone - there is plenty of support out there to help you long after your cancer treatment is over.

For more information, visit our cancer centre

Sources

*1 in 2 people will get cancer (2015). Cancer Research UK. Sourced from S Ahmad, N Orminston-Smith and P D Sasieni (2015).

Trends in the lifetime risk of developing cancer in Great Britain: comparison of risk for those born from 1930 to 1960. British Cancer Journal

**After breast cancer treatment: what now? (2016). Breast Cancer Care: [p 8]


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