Cancer Patients’ Silent Battle

By Jonesa Rodriguez - October 12, 2020

A range of emotions is common after receiving a cancer diagnosis. A patient may instantly feel shocked, followed by feelings of sadness or grief. As a treatment plan is quickly put into place, the patient’s focus often shifts to survival mode, and they are left with little time to consider and work through their feelings. As a result, they often hit an emotional wall when treatment is over.

When fears and anxieties that have been suppressed begin to surface, another silent battle can begin: depression.

“Adjustment to a cancer diagnosis takes time and initial depressed feelings are normal,” said Christine Healy, a licensed social worker at Moffitt Cancer Center. “Changes in eating and sleeping patterns and feeling more anxious or fearful are often normal. It is the degree to which these changes occur which is important.”

Feelings of depression are common when coping with any cancer. Patients may start to think about their careers and life goals and the future may seem uncertain. Many may also experience physical changes in their bodies and feel isolated when it comes to sharing their feelings.

“Initially the overpowering feeling is isolation, ‘I am alone in this,'” said Healy. “It takes some time for patients to discover who they can comfortably speak with and how much they should share.”

Depression can be mild and temporary with periods of sadness or more severe and lasting, which is often an indicator of a serious problem.

“Coping skills before cancer may sometimes predict how you cope later,” Healy said. “Dealing with your feelings is very important, rather than masking them by feeling the need to be positive all the time, especially for others. Cancer is big.”

Signs and symptoms of depression in a cancer patient can sometimes be hard to identify because they can easily be mistaken as a side effect of treatment.

Some of the most common signs are:

  • Sadness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Major weight loss or weight gain
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping all the time
  • Energy loss (tiredness or less energy almost every day)
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and helplessness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

“It is important for a patient to seek professional help if any of the changes they are experiencing are getting in the way of activities, jobs or relationships,” said Healy. “If your feelings are overwhelming at times and you have difficulty getting out of bed for more than a few days, these are definite signs that you need to talk with someone.”

At Moffitt, a staff of social workers can assess patients for depression and work closely with psychologists and psychiatrists in the Behavioral Medicine Department.  

“There is help. We have many resources to assist in the adjustment to a cancer diagnosis,” said Healy. “We have support groups for those that want to share experiences in a supportive group atmosphere, facilitated by licensed clinical social workers.”

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