Cancer, Depression and Panic Attacks


This article covers how emotional health is damaged by cancer diagnosis, treatment, or being stricken with a life-long chronic illness. Depression, clinical depression and panic attacks are only a few of the ways that feelings and emotions can manifest themselves in highly stressful and medically scary situations.

When you are faced with a terminal illness or cancer diagnosis, it can seem like the entire world is suddenly coming at you and there is just no where to turn. Being diagnosed with heavy, life-altering news is never easy for anyone, and can bring on the common feelings of depression, anxiety, fear, guilt and so much more.

There are many things that can trigger these feelings. Body changes result in lack of confidence and self-esteem issues, which might mean you need to take the time to grieve the changes to yourself and in your life. Family roles may be altered or changed due to the things that you might not still be able to do the same way as before your diagnosis. The physical symptoms that accompany the disease or cancer can cause extreme emotional distress because constantly being sick, feeling poorly and unable to live life as you were can be very disheartening. Those diagnosed with these are often forced to face their own death and end of life, which can be utterly terrifying without the proper support and counseling. Being in constant pain from the disease or treatment can also alter your outlook on every day living. It is not easy to live with cancer or a life-long illness and reaching out for mental help when needed is normal and absolutely okay to do.

The patients are not the only people involved to experience such feelings and emotions. Family members and caregivers of those with cancer or other life-long illnesses often face the feelings, but with different reasons. They fear their special person’s death, they worry about the pain and discomfort that heir person deals with daily, and they become depressed with the work-load and emotional toll that comes with being a caregiver. It is very common for these types of feelings to creep in at any time from diagnosis to the end of life or end of treatment and all of these feelings are normal to have.

When should I reach out for help?

If you find yourself having dark feelings or thoughts of suicide, reach out to a family member, caregiver, friend, doctor or call the suicide hotline immediately. The number for the suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255 and is open twenty-four hours a day (ACS). Cancer and chronic illness change peoples lives and not always for the better. Your cancer care medical team pays the most attention to the physical symptoms and treatment, but they care just as much about your mental outlook. If you feel that you are losing control or your emotions or need help finding a balance, please reach out to your doctor’s post haste. If you as a caregiver or family member notice that your ill relative or friend is mentally struggling, seek help with the, and let them know that they are not alone. Here are some signs to watch for:

  • extreme confusion
  • emotions that are interfering with daily activities and last more than a day or so
  • unable to sleep
  • unable or unwilling to eat
  • thoughts or talk of suicide or hurting themselves
  • loss of interest in things once found enjoyable
  • no pleasure in life
  • complains of constricted chest or trouble breathing
  • sweating more than normal, or for what seems like no reason
  • restless and unable to remain still or focused
  • has new or unusual symptoms that do not seem normal

Symptoms of Clinical Depression in Cancer Patients

Many people who experience depression after cancer or diagnosis are able to put on a front or a “brave face” when they are out in public. This “brave face” does not signify that a person is handling their emotions or depression at all, and only trying to avoid discussing or dealing with the issues in public. Just because a person is smiling and acting happy or delighted does that mean that they have mastered and won against their depression or emotions. It just does not work that way. That said, there is nothing wrong with having a positive outlook in life and with cancer. Positivity has been proven to help the body heal faster and be calmer in general.

These are warning signs of clinical depression. These feelings can strike any human at any time, for almost any reason.

  • Trouble focusing thoughts, remembering, or making decisions about anything from the simple to the complex.
  • Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless.
  • Ongoing sadness, hopelessness, or “empty” moods every day.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities in everyday life.
  • Major weight loss or weight gain without intentionally trying.
  • Being slowed down or restless and agitated almost every day, enough for others to take notice.
  • Extreme fatigue and tiredness with loss of energy daily.
  • Trouble sleeping with early waking, sleeping too much, or not being able to sleep at all.
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide, suicide plans or attempts to take their own life.

While some of these symptoms can also be side effects of chemotherapy and other treatments, when combined with dark and heavy feelings, these are most likely a sign of clinical depression. If five or more of these symptoms are happening every day to you or a loved one, you should move to sit down and discuss your concerns with a doctor or another qualified mental health professional. If you ever feel that you are going to try and hurt yourself, reach out for help immediately by calling 911.

How can I help someone who is depressed or emotionally challenged?

If you or someone you know if depressed, consider one of these things to try:

  • Engage the person in conversation and help distract them from the heaviness of their emotions.
  • Remind them that these feelings are normal and okay to have.
  • Reassure your person that you are there for them and will support them through the rough patches. Remind them that time helps heal and progress can always be made in the future.
  • Encourage your person to continue with all of their medical care and reach out to a mental health professional to help ease the burden their illnesses and treatments have brought on.
  • Help make appointments, if and when needed.
  • Encourage your person to get up and move! Being physically active helps level brain hormones and chemicals, which will help calm the body and mind.
  • Be there for transportation for your person if they need a friend at appointments or a way to make sure that are attending all of their scheduled doctor check ins.
  • Know that a certain amount of pessimism is normal in heavy medical situations, and that pessimism will not last forever.

If you have a depressed friend, consider avoiding these things at all costs:

  • Holding your feelings inside and not communicating about the situation. Honesty is best.
  • Forcing your person to communicate when they do not want to.
  • Tell a depressed person to cheer up or get over it.
  • Blame yourself or your person for their feelings, emotions or depression. Sometimes it just cannot be helped until it is properly treated.
  • Do not try to reason with a depressed person making threats. Simply seek help.

Panic Attacks and Depression

Panic attacks are another form of mental breakdown that signify unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety. These attacks come on suddenly and can last from five minutes to hours or days in severe cases. Symptoms of a panic attack are:

  • Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered and confined.
  • An urge to escape the present room or situation.
  • Numbness or tingling sensations through hands, legs, or body.
  • Feeling “unreal” or “detached” from themselves.
  • Chills or hot flashes, with or without red cheeks and tremors.
  • Racing heart.
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or very faint.
  • Chest pain or discomfort.
  • Feeling as if they are choking or unable to swallow.
  • Trembling or shaking, through the entire body.
  • Sweating more profusely than normal, or when no activity is happening.
  • Fear of losing control or being called “crazy.”

If you or your loved one are experiencing emotional challenges after facing diagnosis, treatment, or living with life-long illness, consider reaching out to your doctors for help. There are many forms of help available for those with mental and emotional trouble. Support groups, medications, life changes and finding new passions or hobbies are just a few of the ways your doctor might wish to step in and assist.

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