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Cancer and Mental Health - Chronic Illnesses Cause More Than Just Medical Conditions

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

While the relationship between cancer and mental health is not the most commonly talked about subject when it comes to cancer care, it is very necessary that we discuss it. So many Americans live with cancer and other chronic illnesses, and a large percentage of those people also suffer from mental health issues as a result.

woman holding her face in her hands

Cancer and Mental Health - Why Do Chronic Illnesses Cause Depression?

Living with a chronic illness such as cancer often causes mental health issues like depression and anxiety. This can be life-changing for people, especially if already dealing with difficult medical treatments and side effects. So, why is this?

Many people experience what is called “chronic sorrow.”

When you are suddenly diagnosed with a chronic illness, the activities you used to participate in are often no longer possible. For many, this also includes jobs or career activities. You are suddenly in a position where you are feeling grief over the loss of the former life you used to be able to live. And in the case of having to change course or even pause your career altogether, this can absolutely cause depression for many people. The career or life aspirations that we have for ourselves give our lives meaning, and when that is suddenly taken away from us it can feel like we are completely grieving the loss of our former self. Which is no less difficult than grieving the loss of a loved one.

This loss of freedom to live the life we’ve planned, including our careers, activities, hobbies we love, foods we love to eat, etc., is a major life loss. So as a result, many people, therefore, suffer mental health issues like depression.

And then on top of that, the loss of a job or career due to chronic illness usually poses a financial burden on patients, leading to even more stress and anxiety.

What are the symptoms of depression?

This list from the NIH covers the most common symptoms of depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood

  • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic

  • Feeling irritable, easily frustrated‚ or restless

  • Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless

  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities

  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling "slowed down"

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions

  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping

  • Changes in appetite or weight

  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause that do not ease even with treatment

  • Suicide attempts or thoughts of death or suicide

It’s Not Just Cancer

Over half of the population in the United States suffers from a chronic illness, which the CDC describes as conditions lasting one or more years and requiring medical treatment, limiting normal activity due to the illness, or both. And, also according to the CDC, 60% of Americans live with one chronic illness, and 40% live with more than one. That is a lot of people!

The most common chronic diseases are heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and these three are the leading causes of disabilities in the US. And in America, the most common lifestyle risk factors for these diseases are tobacco use, excessive alcohol use, poor nutrition, and lack of physical activity.1

[We recently covered the link between alcohol consumption and cancer in this post]

So with this many Americans living with chronic illness, and likely suffering the subsequent mental health issues, what can be done?

Ways to Manage Depression and Anxiety from Chronic Illness

For patients who are dealing with depression and anxiety as a result of chronic illness, acknowledging and understanding this grief is the first step to dealing with and overcoming it. Also, it is important to give yourself grace as well. Make sure that you celebrate the small wins in your life. Third, building resilience from within is also really helpful. Though this is certainly not easy and takes concentrated effort! I’ve got some tips on this topic, however - you can read about my own journey with building resilience after my cancer diagnosis here.

Finally, one of the most impactful things a person can do to cope with depression due to chronic illness is to seek help. Either locating a support group to talk through things with or working with a qualified therapist can make a big difference.2

Unfortunately, mental health is not commonly discussed with patients by their healthcare providers during diagnosis or treatment. Understanding and talking about how grief is extremely common in cancer and other chronic illnesses is something that hopefully will be commonplace with providers one day, but in the meantime the more we can talk about this the better.

If you or a loved one are dealing with a cancer diagnosis or other medical condition, and are interested in counseling services, please reach out. Body Esteem offers multiple services to help you achieve your well-being goals, and need-based sliding scale options are available as well.


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