When faced with a cancer diagnosis most people are mainly concerned with their physical health, and how they can best treat and beat cancer.
But mental health is an important part of their recovery. In their weekly conversation, psychologist Dan Gottlieb and WHYY’s behavioral health reporter Maiken Scott discussed mental health issues around cancer, and how to address them.
Scott: Dan, how important is caring for your mental health as you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis?
Gottlieb: It couldn’t be more important. Cancer affects the body, and the body suffers, but if our mind is not in good shape, it affects our immune system, it affects the course of treatment, it affects everything. Cancer is something that happens to our bodies, and when we’re traumatized like that we begin to shift identity, and many people feel that, “now, who I am is cancer,” or “who I am is a cancer patient,” and “this is my life.” It’s hard to make that shift from “who I am is cancer” to “what I have is cancer.” And if we can make this shift, things start to change, and so does our sense of well being and connection to the world.
Scott: What are some good ways to deal with anxiety around having this diagnosis and going through the treatments?
Gottlieb: First of all, don’t try to outsmart your mind, and suppress your anxiety, or ignore it and pretend it is not there. There’s a lot of anxiety associated with cancer, it feels very often like it’s the potential for a death sentence. There’s a lot of anxiety around where it is going to go and how debilitated we may or may not be. You can’t shut off anxiety. But at the same time, know that all anxiety is about the future, and we know nothing about what’s going to happen in the future. Not only that, but we tell ourselves stories about what will happen to our bodies in the future. That may or may not happen, but we have no idea what’s going to happen to our minds in the future, and our sense of well being. It is possible that one thing could happen to our bodies and we could find happiness and well being regardless of what’s happening to our bodies.
Scott: So it’s a focus on the now, on the moment?
Gottlieb: Yes, if we spend too much time in the future then we lose the lives we have now.
Scott: Talk about the importance of caring for the mental health of the loved ones, be it the caregiver, the family, those who are closest to the person with the diagnosis.
Gottlieb: Cancer is something that affects the family, and not a person, and the entire family needs care. Caregivers suffer because of physical deprivation and anxiety, and the worst suffering for caregivers is their helplessness and watching somebody they love suffer and not having the resources to fix the suffering. So, everyone needs care, because everyone has been wounded by this diagnosis.