A new study suggests that while depression is often a major problem for cancer patients soon after treatment ends, anxiety is more of a long-term challenge for survivors and their spouses.
"Efforts should be made to improve recognition and treatment of anxiety in long-term cancer survivors and their spouses," according to the authors of the study published in The Lancet Oncology earlier this month.
First, let's address post-treatment depression, which has been compared to post-partum depression. Patients have put their fears aside to give everything they have to the grueling treatment. Then, all of a sudden, the caregivers recede, the emergency subsides, and a patient can feel isolated.
I experienced this letdown after each my four bone marrow transplants. Naturally I was elated to be finished and on the mend, but especially after being in the hospital so long as many transplant patients are, I felt adrift. No more button to press for a nurse to appear.
If you feel depressed, don’t hesitate about calling your nurse or doctor. I called the nurses' station from time to time in those early days and felt better from having been reassured.
According to the study in The Lancet, anxiety down the road has not been given enough attention. The extent of it depends, of course, on the patient's or spouse's disposition.
My sister and I share the same disposition and have both suffered from periodic bouts of anxiety, mine having to do with my own health, and, since I am divorced, my sister’s having to do with her role as primary support person.
"I feel that over the years I developed more anxiety — on top of my pre-existing condition — not only about you, but also about my own health. It was a double-whammy with my survivor guilt because now I was worrying that it rightfully should be my turn to get hit," she said.
You know you should enjoy every day, and often you do, so when you are hit with anxiety down the road you might not feel that you are doing it right.
First of all you should understand that it's normal to have a mix of feelings. And second, as The Lancet study points out, caregivers should be more aware of anxiety in survivors so that they can treat it better.
As a patient, you have the right to ask for someone else if you do not immediately find the right fit if your doctor recommends a "psycho-oncologist" (a person specializing in the emotional aspects of cancer) or other therapist. This may be hard if you want to talk to someone soon, but it's better in the long run to find the right person.
When I was in the hospital and had just crawled out of a coma, a psycho-oncologist showed up who only upset me more. Peering through glasses perched on the end of her nose, she asked me whether I was sad that I didn’t have a spouse and also whether it was harder for me because my mother was dead. Diane and I were dismayed. Here I was clinging to life and she was upsetting me with psychobabble.
I told my nurse that I never wanted to see this woman again. I was more comforted by the daily visits of a social worker who actually knew how to talk to me.
While you're waiting for depression or anxiety to pass, there are many steps you can take, starting with writing a daily list of things that make you feel grateful. These can be as simple as watching the morning sun filtering into your bedroom.
You can also take extra time to savor simple things you like to do, such as having coffee or tea. Your anxiety might just waft away with the steam coming out of the cup.
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