When to Seek Help


Cancer treatment is primarily about survival, but it is also important to maintain the highest quality of life possible during your experience. Psychological disorders, such as major depression and anxiety, can negatively affect your quality of life. Thirty-three percent of cancer patients experience serious psychological distress. However, less than 10 percent seek professional psychological care. This is unfortunate since regular therapy or counseling can significantly reduce or eliminate the symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve overall quality of life.

Many cancer centers have psycho-oncology specialists on staff. These specialists might include nurses, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and chaplains who specialize in the mental well-being of cancer patients and their families and caregivers. You may wish to include such a specialist on your care team to help you learn positive coping strategies and maintain a hopeful outlook.

Normal responses

If you are trying to decide if you need help handling your emotions, it may be helpful to know what are considered “normal” reactions for most cancer patients.

When people first realize they are being tested for possible cancer, they usually experience fear and anxiety as they wait for results. When they receive a cancer diagnosis, their most common reaction is disbelief and denial. This stage usually lasts just a few days. The new cancer patient then slowly begins to accept the diagnosis and will likely experience emotional turmoil that includes anxiety and depression, poor concentration, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping and an inability to complete tasks. Thoughts of death may begin to dominate the person’s thoughts. This stage usually lasts one to two weeks. Once treatment begins, many patients become more hopeful because they have a plan and they are taking positive steps to fight their cancer.

Over the next few weeks or months, most patients will continue to adjust to all the emotions and changes that come with cancer treatment, recovery and remission. This period may be punctuated by new emotional crises if there are facial disfigurements, treatment failures or cancer recurrence.

All of these reactions are “normal” in the sense that they are the most common or typical emotions experienced by head and neck cancer patients. It doesn’t mean that if your reactions are different that there is something wrong with you. There are a wide variety of emotional reactions that may be normal for you and are not a reason to be overly concerned or seek professional help. Any time that you feel you need help, though, you should not hesitate to seek it. What is tolerable for one person, even if it is considered normal, may not be tolerable for you. There is no shame in seeking help when you need it.

Signs you may need to seek help

While periods of sadness, grief, fear and anxiety are common throughout the cancer experience, if you’re finding yourself unable to adjust to your diagnosis after weeks or months, you may be suffering from a serious psychological disorder that requires treatment. Some signs that you may need help include:

  • Having a history of depression or anxiety before your cancer diagnosis
  • Having five or more symptoms of depression for two weeks or more
  • Experiencing sustained anxiety that prevents you from functioning in your daily life and/or getting the cancer treatments you need
  • Denying your diagnosis to the point that you refuse to get treatment
  • Feeling unable to concentrate or function in daily life
  • Feeling “numb” or paralyzed, unable to make decisions or take action
  • Losing your motivation to go anywhere, do anything or interact with others
  • Experiencing multiple panic attacks
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless or fixated on thoughts of death and dying
  • Having suicidal thoughts or impulses
  • Experiencing any other type of psychological or physical distress not associated with your cancer treatment over a sustained period of time (e.g., shaking, headaches, digestive issues, difficulty thinking, etc.)

If you have any emotional or psychological issue that you want to overcome but can’t, and it is affecting your quality of life or cancer treatment, tell your cancer care team. Ask for a referral to a mental health professional who can help you feel more in control and develop coping strategies that will support you during your cancer journey. Anxiety and depression can be severe and disabling by themselves. In combination with a cancer diagnosis, they can stand in the way of your treatment, survival and recovery. With the help of a professional, you have a two in three chance of eliminating the symptoms of a psychological disorder entirely in the course of a few months. Do not hesitate to seek help and give yourself every advantage you can in your fight against cancer.

There’s something very comforting about being with other survivors. It validates your feelings and your fears and it can be a great thing. Eva G. (tongue cancer survivor)