From talking to people within the cancer community, it seems that most people who are going through cancer treatment, or who’ve finished cancer treatment, suffer from some form or other of emotional difficulty at some point along the way. And it’s totally okay to admit that you are one of them. And importantly, it’s absolutely okay not to be okay.
These emotional issues can also be called “mental health issues” but you don’t need to worry about that label. The spectrum of problems ranges in severity and intensity: some of these problems have specific labels like anxiety, depression, panic attacks and PTSD. But for many people, labels are irrelevant – all they know is that they are struggling on an emotional level and they don’t know what to do about it. They feel tired, unhappy, scared, anxious, overwhelmed, fearful, sad, confused, hesitant… the list goes on.
We’ve put together this article on the basis of our own experience as patients and on the basis of our research into some techniques and strategies for helping your emotional and mental health during/after cancer treatment. We’ve also set out signposts to plenty of excellent online resources. These techniques and strategies won’t work for everyone and they will not miraculously sort out all your problems. But they are a starting point. It’s important that everyone should speak to their medical team (oncologist, breast care nurse or GP) if they are struggling.
The tips here apply whether you’re going through treatment, living with cancer or you’ve finished your treatment.
There is a lot that we could say about mindfulness. It can be an incredibly helpful tool for dealing with anxiety and similar issues. It is all about focusing on your breath and staying in the present moment rather than thinking ahead to the future or back to the past. You could try this very simple exercise:
You can do this whenever you feel overwhelmed, worried, panicked or fearful. Just take 10 minutes to yourself and bring yourself back into the present.
Links to further resources:
Talking about what has happened to you and how you are feeling can help to bring the anxiety and other unpleasant emotions out of your head and your heart and out into the open. The old saying, “it’s better out than in” definitely has something to it. So, who can you talk to?
In the same way that talking can help to get something off your chest, writing can also help. And with writing, you don’t need to rely on another person to be around when you feel the need to express your emotions – you can keep a notebook to jot down thoughts at any time of day or night, or you can keep a detailed journal about your feelings. Express your inner feelings of anger, sadness or fear by writing them down. You could even write on pieces of paper that you burn (very carefully) or rip up onto tiny shreds, in order to give yourself some sort of release from those thoughts.
For tips on how to start writing – take a look at this article: Using writing as a therapy and to help others.
See this article, Writing Tips to Help You Through Cancer by Allie Morgan, confidence coach.
At Future Dreams we run a couple of different writing workshops. Sometimes these are online and sometimes they are held in in person at the Future Dreams House in London. Check out this page for more information.
All of these things are apparently known to help with helping the mental health of a cancer patient or someone who is trying to move on after the end of treatment. It makes sense – the more time that you are distracted by exercise or keeping yourself busy, the less time you have to think about cancer. Of course, this won’t cure all mental health problems, but it might help.
We have more information about how to get started and the benefits of exercise on this page of the website.
Life coaching is a little bit like talking to a therapist, but the focus is on actively taking steps to take back control of your life. Often, people who’ve finished treatment for cancer find it helpful to speak to a life coach or take a course with a life coach. This is something that you will often have to pay for (although some charities put on courses – see below). There are plenty of good free resources online and plenty of people who you can follow on social media for tips and advice. Look around for a free course taking place near you. Some of the local cancer support centres put on moving on courses for people who have finished treatment (for example, your local centre might put on a Macmillan Hope course) and lots of the breast cancer and cancer charities provide moving on courses, for example, Maggies and Breast Cancer Now. Future Dreams also puts on coaching courses. Some of these are online and others are in person at the Future Dreams House in London. Check out this page for more information.
Again, relaxing is not going to miraculously cure all mental health issues, but using relaxation techniques on a regular basis can help your emotional state. Have a look at our page with relaxation tips for more information and signposts to helpful resources. In brief, our advice is to:
Getting enough sleep is essential to support your mental health. However, of all the times in your life when you want and need a good night sleep, during and after cancer is the time when it is sometimes really difficult to sleep. However, the research all points to the following ways as helping to get a better night sleep:
For more sleep advice, have a read of these three articles:
It’s a well-known fact that going through cancer can make you feel like you are not in control of your life. And feeling out of control can contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious. So, taking steps to regain an element of control in your life might help counter some of these unpleasant feelings.
Why am I feeling this way – what can I read about mental health and cancer?
Where can I read about how other people cope with anxiety during and after cancer?
Other help and resources
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Reviewed February 2023
The information and content provided on this page has been written from a patient’s perspective then reviewed by a breast care nurse and it is intended for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. Please contact your medical team for advice on anything covered in this article.
The links and/or recommendations in this article to third-party resources are for your information and we take no responsibility for the content contained in those third-party resources.
Sylvie and Danielle began Future Dreams with just £100 in 2008. They believed nobody should face breast cancer alone. Their legacy lives on in Future Dreams House. We couldn’t continue to fund support services for those touched by breast cancer, raise awareness of breast cancer and promote early diagnosis and advance research into secondary breast cancer without your help. Please consider partnering with us or making a donation.