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Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis: The Importance of Mental Health Care

By February 22, 2022June 1st, 2022Mental & Behavioral Health Well-being
A man looks out the window, contemplating life

Cancer is a whole-body disease. It affects people physically, mentally, and emotionally. Undergoing testing, diagnosis, and treatment can cause intense feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety, frustration, stress, and fear. Studies show that at least 30 to 35 percent of cancer patients experience some type of mental health condition. At the same time, caregivers and loved ones may also experience many of these same feelings.

Navigating Cancer During a Global Pandemic

We’re also entering a third year of the COVID-19 pandemic — a time marked by loss, uncertainty, anxiety, and fatigue. Navigating cancer during a pandemic presents even more health concerns. People with cancer are immunocompromised, which means they must be even more diligent with COVID-19 safety precautions.

This also affects family members or caregivers who are doing their best to keep COVID-19 out of their home. Every outing or interaction can cause fear and worry. Treatment may further limit what a person can do outside of the hospital in the midst of a pandemic. Daily worries all are amplified by the reality of cancer.

When to Seek Help

Being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease will affect your mental health. It is totally normal and appropriate for people with cancer to experience feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, and fear. But that doesn’t mean you have to accept long bouts of mental health struggles. While patients may experience ups and downs in their mood, if these feelings last for longer than a few days, it’s time to seek help.

The Importance of Mental Health Treatment

At times, the challenges of navigating a cancer diagnosis (especially during a global pandemic) may seem insurmountable. But it is critical to keep mental health in focus when coping with cancer. In fact, a healthy mental state may positively impact treatment outcomes. For example, studies show that people with cancer who got treatment for mental health conditions had longer survival times. In addition, those who get mental health treatment are more likely to follow through with medical care and often have a better quality of life.

A Holistic Approach to Cancer Care

Over the past decade, most providers have changed the way they think about cancer care. Specifically, they have moved toward a more holistic approach that helps patients manage their mental health along with their physical health.

These days, mental health care has become an important part of a person’s overall cancer care. Providers can discuss patient-focused mental health resources such as routine distress screening, treatment planning, referrals to mental health experts, and re-evaluation.

Mental health professionals have a variety of coping strategies that can help patients manage their mental health conditions. Some of these strategies may include:

  • Mindfulness
  • Counseling
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Cognitive behavior therapy
  • Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications

Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis at Home

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends various wellness activities for people with cancer (as well as their caregivers).

  • Spend time with family and friends. Social distancing may make it more challenging to connect with others safely. But there are still many creative ways to connect with others while still remaining diligent about COVID-19 precautions. This may mean more texts and phone calls, Zoom calls, emails, online support groups, or outside visits or walks.
  • Build healthy habits where possible. Some days you may feel too physically ill to do anything. Others times you may not feel up for anything mentally or emotionally, and that’s OK. But there are days when you will want to get up and do something. On those days, try to go outside as much as possible. Get as much regular physical activity as you can, and eat a healthy diet. Fresh air, physical movement, and fueling your body with healthy food go a long way towards helping your mental health.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Sleep problems are common among cancer patients, but luckily there are resources to help. Good sleep habits, relaxation techniques (such as sleep or meditation apps), and insomnia medication can all help.
  • Find ways to laugh. Play games, talk with friends, watch movies, or participate in a virtual book club.
  • Nurture your spiritual side. Read, pray, spend time in nature, journal, meditate, or create art. There’s no right or wrong way to explore spirituality.

Additional Resources for Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis

If you are living with cancer, don’t hesitate to seek mental health support from your oncology team. While cancer can feel isolating and scary, you are not alone. The ACS offers several resources, including:

  • Patient Programs and Services: This includes a helpline and access to live chats, support groups, and more.
  • Survivorship: This page has information on adjusting to treatment, staying healthy, and resources on coping with cancer.
  • ACS Cancer Survivors Network: This is a public forum where people can get support, share how they are coping, find answers to questions about cancer and treatment, or talk with others who are living with cancer.

Know Your Mind

For more information about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit

IBX Insights Team

The IBX Insights Team is here to provide tips on using your health insurance and living a healthy life.