Without the opportunity to fully process each part of the journey, many survivors find themselves experiencing depression, characterized by sadness, apathy, being stuck in the past, and anxiety, which can feel like an overwhelming worry about the future and include panic attacks for some. Those with a pre-existing anxiety disorder may be at an even higher risk for anxiety and severe depression after cancer. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common occurrence for cancer survivors, even for long-term cancer survivors, who have been in remission for decades.
Being told cancer is in remission does not always bring an immediate improvement to an individual’s mental health or quality of life. It can take time to adjust to the “new normal”. After the emotionally intense experience of cancer treatment and long periods of constantly waiting for the unknown to happen, “cancer remission” doesn’t always bring instant relief. Daily life can feel uncomfortable and strange at times as you continue to adjust mentally.
When it comes to cancer survivor anxiety, one of the biggest worries is “how do we fix it?”. The worry changes from surviving cancer, to the fear of cancer recurrence.
For cancer survivors that want to become thrivers, I usually recommend that we take a look at different types of treatment that complement each other. Anxiety does not have a single treatment option, and the treatment must be tailored to the individual and their needs.
First and foremost, it is important to make sure that there’s counseling and emotional support, which may include cognitive behavioral therapy (i.e. “talk therapy”). You may have already received support from a counselor, social worker, or clinical psychologist as part of your cancer care during treatment. I recommend to everyone to continue with this even after cancer remission, if you can. Having an opportunity to share your personal stories, whether it be with mental health professionals or a supportive family member, can provide healing.
An experienced healthcare provider will also ask you questions about your level of anxiety and depression at regular follow-up visits too, so use these opportunities to share any mental health challenges you’ve been experiencing. They will be able to refer you to local support groups and social workers in the community if that is what you need.
Mindfulness meditation, hypnosis, reiki, massage therapy and acupuncture are all wonderful tools that can be used to support healing from anxiety and reestablish a balance in our nervous system, our mind, and our thoughts. Mindfulness-based stress reduction practices, like journaling and breathwork, can also be incredibly helpful in calming the body and processing your thoughts. It isn’t about ignoring fears. The fear of recurrence is valid and must be acknowledged. Instead, it is about finding a balanced way of processing those thoughts and fears. This balance allows our body to focus on creating energy to actually have energy moving forward.