Ignoring Mental Health during Cancer Treatment 

Summary: The Institute of Medicine and The National Cancer Institute are working towards raising awareness and the need for patient support when it comes to mental health and cancer treatment. The importance of mental health for the overall healing of the patient is a must, and we must work harder to ensure patients have the information they need to seek out the help they need for any mental issues that may arise. This means we must empower and educate each other to lessen the stigma of mental illness in relation to medical issues and cancer.

For those hearing their cancer diagnosis for the first time, it can be a devastating and utterly life changing moment. Not only is your body damage and full of this potential killer, but your psyche is also instantly altered. In today’s day and age, cancer is no longer simply the “c” word, and awareness and advocacy programs play a huge, essential role in prevention, early diagnosis and advancements in medicine making treatments more tolerable and effective.

There are still many pieces missing from the whole conversation about cancer, including the psychological impacts and the implications about care and overall prognosis. This is evident in literature created for cancer patients and the sparse availability of resources for cancer patients in general. Possibly the most perplexing part of this missing information is that specialists do not always address these aspects, either.

”As ongoing physical, psychological, and social needs affect the quality of life for patients and survivors, the existing method for delivering cancer care is becoming unsustainable and is not adequately configured to deliver high-quality cancer care to this growing population in the US.” -University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health

The National Cancer Institute states that nearly twenty-five percent of survivors experience some symptoms of depression and up to forty-five percent anxiety (NCI). Many also experience the symptoms most associated with post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD as well. Cancer survivors and those experiencing serious, life-long illness are also twice as likely to commit suicide than those who live without life-altering medical issues (NIH).

Most cancer survivors do not experience the mental side of their illness until after their treatment has ended, and in many cases, not until they have been deemed “cancer free.” This type of delayed distress often sets in during one of the most crucial times for the cancer patient, which is when they need to stand up and reclaim their lives after such a battle. While support through treatment is important, many specialists are now stating that ongoing, constant and stable support systems that the patient can count on through recovery and beyond is more important than ever.

Cancer survivors who are depressed are twice as likely to die prematurely as those who are not depressed”-Journal of Cancer Survivorship

David Spiegel, MD, professor of medicine at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, advises that “just as many oncologists now view pain as a symptom to be treated, they should also consider depression a symptom to be treated to improve quality of—and possibly extend—life.”

In past decades, the Institute of Medicine has posted their findings of the role of psychosocial factors that have a role in our health. “Many interventions traditionally considered irrelevant actually are quite important for the health status of individuals and populations.”  IOM is one of many organizations recognizing the need to address all aspects of our health, particularly in the treatment of cancer, “one of the nation’s most serious and burdensome illnesses.

There is still much work to do to help spread awareness about the mental health aspects that ride along with cancer treatments. The American Cancer Society states that over 1.6 million new cancer cases will arise in the next year resulting in over five-hundred-thousand deaths in the United States alone; which is nearly one in seven cases. In order to improve overall quality of cancer care in treating the patient with a holistic approach acknowledging the whole person, this helps to alleviate some of the mental pressures.

Where can we start to further address mental health and cancer treatment?

  • Take part in conducting more research on the intersection between psychological well-being and cancer survivorship.
  • Improve the Inclusion of mental health care in the training of medical professionals.
  • Create a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach within hospitals and facilities. For example, Oncologists and psychiatrists working together for the overall better care for the patient.
  • Periodic psychiatric evaluations, such as depression screenings for cancer patients beginning at the time of diagnosis and continuing through the end of treatment.
  • Availability and access to free counseling services for patients increased and offered in a variety of methods.
  • More funds and money raised put towards resources for mental health services, particularly for cancer patients and their families.
  • Better health care coverage that includes access to providers with expertise in the treatment of mental health conditions in those with cancer, with less hassle to patients.

When it comes to our health, we cannot neglect our emotional and psychological well-being. Stigma, lack of awareness and lack of access to resources remain deterrents to patients receiving the best care available. If mental health care were acknowledged not only as a normal part of the process, but also as an integral part of treatment, patients might feel less alone and more empowered to speak up and seek help, and ultimately, live longer, healthier and happier lives.

Resources Used:

National Cancer Institute



Institute of Medicine or IOM

Reclaiming Intimacy

Back to blog