The loneliness of the long-distance cancer survivor

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Another day, another study confirming that cancer survivors are more likely than their healthy peers to suffer serious psychological distress such as anxiety and depression, even a decade after treatment ends.  The study appears in the July 27 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The physical and emotional fallout of cancer treatment, including fatigue, pain, nausea and vomiting, mouth sores and hair loss, can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. While many of these symptoms may subside or disappear after treatment ends, some, including fatigue, can linger for months or years.

Chemotherapy can also cause delayed problems that aren’t apparent until months or years later, including peripheral neuropathy (nerve pain or numbness), infertility, organ dysfunction, hearing loss, muscle atrophy and cardiovascular disease.

Cancer can also bring about job loss and changes to relationships, including family roles and sexual intimacy. Survivors also may fear the cancer will recur, worries that may contribute to psychological distress.

In the study, 9 percent of long-term cancer survivors and 6 percent of individuals without cancer reported seeing or talking to a mental health professional within the previous year. One-third of cancer survivors with serious psychological distress reported using mental health services, while 18 percent said they could not afford mental health care.

So far, so depressing. But take heart. Awareness is the key. Now that we know this is the result we need to put programs in place to deal with it. And like all mental health issues,  it can be successfully dealt with. Some may find benefit from anti-anxiety medications, cognitive behavioral psychotherapy and stress management techniques, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and touch therapies.  And don’t underestimate the power of eating a proper diet, maintaining a healthy weight  and staying physically active, in dealing with the physical and emotional side effects.

I often think how sad it is that having survived a life-threatening illness such as cancer, the patient goes on to live a life filled with fear, anxiety and depression. With more and more of us surviving a diagnosis of cancer, it is now about the quality of our lives after treatment ends. We need to take a longer view of survivorship and what that means. It is not just about saving a life, but also about how that life is lived in the intervening years.

(This post partially adapted from Health. com. To read more on this study click here)

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