OHSU

Social and Emotional Impacts of Cancer and Cancer Treatment

Cancer’s effects are far more than physical. Many survivors find that cancer’s impact spills over into the emotional, psychological and spiritual realms. This might happen either during or right after treatment - or not for years.

There is no right or wrong way to feel what you’re feeling, but support groups, counselors, your health care team and family and friends can go a long way toward providing you the comfort you seek. Remember: You are not alone.

There are many common issues cancer survivors may face. They include:

Body image and self-esteem

Cancer or its treatment often affects your body’s appearance. You might have a hard time dealing with this “new” you. Even if your body hasn’t changed, you might still be concerned about how you look to other people. You could feel self-conscious around or unappealing to your partner. Counselors and support groups can help. Also, activities such as exercise and eating better can actually promote a better self-image.

Depression

The American Cancer Society estimates up to one in four people with cancer have clinical depression. While symptoms like fatigue, weight loss and insomnia may mirror cancer treatment, depression is a serious illness all its own and may make you less likely to follow your treatment plan. If you feel depressed, you have options: It’s important to get help. Talk to a friend, family member or someone on your health care team if you feel a sadness that never seems to fade or decreased desire to participate in activities you once enjoyed.

Fear of recurrence

It’s normal to worry about your cancer coming back. Every ache, pain or sniffle seems like a cause for concern. This is totally natural. Sometimes using your fear can be a good thing: It can motivate you to talk about your concerns with your doctor, and to get to know your body a little better. Yoga or meditation can also help relieve anxiety.

Grief

You may feel a sense of loss or bereavement for how things used to be, or that you’ve lost your health, fertility, sex drive, physical independence or more. It’s important to realize that grief is normal, and even expected. Certain triggers, such as dates/anniversaries, medical appointments or even sights or smells can bring on a new wave of grief. Grief also doesn’t cause cancer, but it’s important to recognize and cope with this feeling.

Relationships

Cancer can put a strain on both close and distant relationships. You may find people are reacting to you differently after cancer. Maybe the people you would have expected to stick by you, didn’t—or vice-versa. How other people react to your illness is perhaps the biggest challenge faced by cancer survivors. Friends, coworkers and family members may feel awkward about discussing your cancer diagnosis. Overcoming communication barriers early is crucial.

Spirituality

Even if you don’t join or rejoin an organized religion, cancer can make you wonder about the “bigger picture.” After cancer treatment is over, you might find yourself renewing a commitment to spiritual practices or organized religion. Some research suggests spirituality can improve your life through a strong social support network, adaptive coping, lessened depression and better physiological function.

Survivor guilt

Some people feel guilty for surviving cancer when others don't.  If you are experiencing a prolonged sense of guilt, your first step should be acknowledging this feeling  and understanding that it’s normal and okay to feel it. A psychotherapist, clergy member or support group can help talk you through your feelings.

Work

After cancer, re-entering social and professional life can be challenging. Many fear an increased risk of infection, lack of energy and anxiety about work performance. However, if working at your job is possible during your cancer and treatment, it can provide a much-needed sense of normalcy during a difficult time. Use your judgment on talking about your cancer and treatment, but open communication with your colleagues can help you get past feelings of uncertainty and low self-worth.