Mental Health and Cancer – Something to keep in mind

Admin Cancer and Exercise, Cancer Survival, Exercise Oncology, Exercise Physiology, Mental Health

You may have noticed that the term mental health is much more prevalent in today’s media, and for good reason too. Whether it be through the news, through social media, or just a chat between friends, conversation around mental health is beginning to get the attention it so desperately deserves. So then what exactly is mental health? And what impact can a cancer diagnosis have on our mental health? We have answered these questions for you while also giving you some tips on how you can improve your mental health and what you can do when it is not in check.

What is mental health?

More recently, the term “mental health” is often used as a substitute for mental health conditions which may include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and others. In order to reduce the possible negative stigma around discussing one’s mental health, it is important that we instead use “mental health” as an umbrella term to describe how well someone is able to cope with the stressors of daily life all while being able to contribute to their community. What we consider community contribution is different from person to person; for some this might be going to work every day and for others this may be being involved in their kids’ local sport team. 

There is no tiptoeing around it: mental health is a complex area where it is important to discern that just because a person has not been diagnosed with a mental health condition that this does not necessarily mean that person’s mental health is well managed. Mental health is something we all have and our ability to manage our mental health can fluctuate daily depending on what life can throw our way. 

What is the effect of a cancer diagnosis on mental health?

Various life events can have an immediate or long-lasting impact on a person’s mental health and a cancer diagnosis is certainly one of those events. Sadly, every four minutes an Australian is diagnosed with cancer and the impact this has on someone’s mental health can be devastating. Following a cancer diagnosis, a person is often flooded with an abundance of information, most of which is based around how to look after themselves physically. Often the mental and emotional side of things is somewhat overlooked. The reality is that 40% of cancer patients experience clinically significant mental health issues following a cancer diagnosis.

It is extremely common for people to experience depression and anxiety symptoms following a cancer diagnosis as well as during and after treatment. These symptoms, if not properly managed, can build up and lead to the person experiencing varying degrees of low mood episodes. How these symptoms are managed is critical because we know that both depression and anxiety can impact cancer treatment and recovery, quality of life, and also survival.

What can I do to better manage my mental health?

The good news is that there is a surplus of research out there that shows that exercise encourages our brain to produce the feel good hormones (endorphins) that help to improve our mood. In fact exercise is so good for our mental health that it is a widely accepted recommendation for improving our mood and in some cases can even be as effective as taking medication or undergoing talk therapy.

For people living with cancer, the evidence shows that performing three weekly 30-60 minute bouts of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic exercise (brisk walking, jogging, riding, etc) OR two to three 20-40 minute weekly bouts of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic exercise plus twice weekly resistance training can help improve depression and anxiety symptoms. Interestingly, supervised exercise seems to have a greater benefit on mental health than exercising alone.

Although aerobic exercise and resistance training have been shown to be effective in improving mental health, it is important to find what works for you because exercise should always be enjoyable and not considered a chore. Other exercise options include dancing, hiking, yoga and pilates.

As exercise physiologists we are biased towards exercise, but there are plenty of other ways we can improve our mental health such as:

  • Spending time with friends and family
  • Getting involved with your community
  • Relaxing through meditation, listening to music, engaging in hobbies
  • Getting outside amongst nature and getting some sunshine (remember to slip, slop, and slap!)
  • Maintain a balanced diet
  • Prioritise sleep

What can I do when my mental health is not in check?

Firstly let’s get one thing straight: acknowledging that your mental health is not where you want it to be is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength! A few signs to look out for that could indicate that your mental health is floundering include:

  • Long-lasting sadness or irritability
  • Extremely high or extremely low moods
  • Excessive fear or worry
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of motivation
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits

As we have discussed in this blog, a cancer diagnosis can have a devastating effect on a person’s life, in particular on their mental health. No one should ever feel like you need to deal with any of this on your own, so if you or someone you know feels as though they are struggling with mental health issues – related to a cancer diagnosis or not – we encourage you/them to visit their general practitioner for professional advice. 

We also encourage having a chat to a social worker or nurse at your local hospital or treatment centre to discuss what other support services and information may be available in the area. 

Below are some good online resources where you can find out more:

The current COVID-19 situation means that people may be more susceptible to mental health concerns due being in isolation. This means that now is more important than ever to continue ongoing mental health conversations and be proactive with managing your own mental health. Remember that it is always okay to not be okay!

Written by Michael Czaplowski, Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Movement Against Cancer