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How Treatment Side Effects Impact Mental Health and Decision-Making

Cancer is a long, hard road that no one wants to travel down. When it strikes you, though, being strong is no longer an option, but a necessity. You are probably prepared for the physical impacts of this life changing diagnosis, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

What you might not expect, though, are the impacts that your treatment can have on your mental health and decision-making.

Depression and Anxiety

If you are going through chemo, you probably braced yourself for the nausea and fatigue that you knew would accompany your treatment. Once you were in the midst of it, however, you may have found that the mental and emotional impacts of chemo treatments are as great as the physical ones, if not greater.

It’s not difficult to understand why. The treatments themselves are inherently stressful, but what you may find even more distressing is how the treatments disrupt your daily life. These disruptions often occur not only on infusion day, but also on the days leading up to and following treatment.

In other words, you might quickly begin to feel as if your entire life is revolving around your chemotherapy, whether you are preparing for your infusion or recovering from it. You may mourn the loss of your daily routine. Your fatigue may interfere with your ability to work, take care of your home, or simply do the things you enjoy. All this can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression.

The good news, however, is that there are things you can do to manage your emotions and nurture your mental health, even in this challenging time. This begins, above all, with giving yourself permission to feel what you need to feel, to grieve when you need to grieve, or to be angry when you need to be angry.

At the same time, getting stuck in these dark emotions isn’t good for your physical or mental health. That’s why it’s essential to track how you are feeling and to know when and how to seek help when you need it.

Daily journaling can help you process your emotions, while leaning on your support group can provide the comfort and the perspective you need to move through them.

Expecting the Unexpected

One of the most challenging aspects of the cancer journey from a mental health perspective is how unpredictable it can be. It’s difficult to prepare for a challenge, after all, if you don’t know what’s coming.

For example, vision problems are a common but often unexpected side effect of cancer treatment. Many patients experience dry eyes, eye pain, and blurriness as a result of their treatment. This can further increase emotional distress not only because such visual impacts can compromise your daily functioning but also because vision and mental health, research is increasingly showing, are deeply interconnected. Indeed, the brain’s visual processing centers lie primarily in its deepest structures, many of which are also responsible for emotion and mood.

Treatment and Decision-Making

When you are in the fight of your life, and you are truly feeling all the physical and emotional impacts of that fight, it’s not only your mental health that may be undermined; you may find it difficult to make rational decisions. When you are worried, fatigued, and sick, your brain simply cannot process information as efficiently or well.

You might find yourself, for instance, making rash and unwise decisions, or you may find yourself unable to make any decision at all. This is why it is important to surround yourself both with friends and family and with healthcare providers you trust.

Such a support network can help guide you through choices that you may be unable to make on your own when the treatment side effects have sapped your energy, stolen your focus, and deflated your mood.

Indeed, because your support network is so important when you’re undergoing treatment, you may find yourself needing to make some major decisions even before your treatment journey begins. For example, if you live in an isolated, rural area, you may determine that it is best for your physical and mental health to relocate, at least temporarily, to the city.

Living in the city can ensure that you have consistent and easy access to your entire healthcare team, including mental healthcare providers. Not only can this make treatment easier when you’re feeling especially tired or unwell, but such proximity to your trusted team can enable you to feel more confident and comfortable with your care, mitigating some of the stress you feel and enhancing your ability to make sound decisions.

The Takeaway

The cancer journey is a scary one, but it does not have to lead to despair. The key is learning how the journey, including your treatment, can impact your mental health and your decision-making. Armed with such knowledge, you can take the steps you need to nurture your mental and emotional well-being even as you fight to recover your physical health.

How to Communicate With Your Medical Team

During a recent town meeting for lung cancer patients, families and caregivers, Katie Brown, Certified Patient Navigator and Vice President of Support and Survivorship Programs at LUNGevity, explains how LUNGevity can help patients gain the knowledge and support they need to participate in meaningful and productive discussions with their medical team. An informed patient is a confident and empowered patient. Knowledge leads to confidence and shared decision-making.

LUNGevity and other patient advocacy organizations offer patients information about their disease, clinical trials and treatment options. Patients will have the opportunity to connect with other patients that have the same disease condition and share stories about their diagnosis, treatment and how they cope with their illness. They can then take comments and questions back to their medical team for discussion.

In the video below, Dr. Malcolm DeCamp, Chief of Thoracic Surgery, Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University explains that it is crucial that patients communicate physical and emotional changes to their medical team. The patient plays a major role in their plan of care and they need to provide constant updates and information to their team so that they can get the best care they deserve.