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May 12, 2022

How a cancer diagnosis can impact mental health

In Cancer Treatment, For Employers, Mental Health

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Cancer doesn’t only impact physical health. People who have received a diagnosis may feel anxiety, distress, and depression while thinking about their prognosis, their treatment, the decisions they’ll need to make, and the impact of the disease on their family and friends. They may also worry about how they’ll handle it at work, wondering if they’ll be able to work, if they should tell their employer, and if their employer can even help them.

Mental health concerns affecting those with cancer

Major depression affects approximately 15% to 25% and anxiety affects about 44% of people with cancer, equally impacting men and women as well as their families. Further, family caregivers experience significantly more anxiety than non caregivers.

Symptoms of distress and anxiety may include:

  • Uncontrollable worry
  • Difficulties with focusing and problem-solving
  • Muscle tension
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Restlessness
  • Dry mouth
  • Irritability or angry outbursts


Complications, Treatments, Chemotherapy & Mental Health

During the cancer journey from diagnosis to treatment, there are different reasons that anxiety may occur in those with cancer. There are many uncertainties, routines disrupted, new faces and many physical side effects. Others include:

  • Poorly managed pain
  • Medical problems such as sepsis, a metabolic change, severe infection, pneumonia, or a blood clot in the lung
  • Tumors of the adrenal gland, pituitary gland, pancreas, or thyroid; tumors that have spread to the brain and spinal cord; or tumors in the lungs
  • Certain types of drugs, including corticosteroids, thyroxine, bronchodilators, and antihistamines 

How Does Cancer Affect Mental Health?

A cancer diagnosis can bring on new mental health issues or heighten those that are already being dealt with.

Symptoms of depression may include:

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness nearly every day
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in once-enjoyable activities
  • Major weight loss or gain
  • Sleep changes (i.e., sleeping too much or not enough)
  • Restlessness or lethargy nearly every day
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Difficulties with focusing, remembering, or decision-making

Various reasons that depression may occur in those with cancer include:

  • Disruption in serotonin or dopamine
  • Past or anticipated loss
  • Direct side effects of chemotherapy medications
  • Presence of tumors in the central nervous system
  • Poorly managed pain
  • Sleep disruptions from medical treatments
  • Anemia

Additionally, long-term cancer survivors may face their own mental health concerns, such as:

  • Anxiety that the cancer will come back
  • Feelings of a loss in control
  • Anxiety and nausea in response to reminders of chemotherapy (e.g., certain smells or sights)
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress (e.g., the inability to stop thinking about cancer and treatment, feelings of isolation)
  • Body image and sexuality concerns

How employers can support their employees’ mental health and cancer diagnosis

Cancer isn’t one disease—it’s subclassified into hundreds of types, defined by site and genetic blueprint. Given that these subtypes all require subspecialized care, people need emotional support that’s just as personalized. Without it, they can feel even more anxiety and stress, and alone on an unwanted journey. Good, open communication between people with cancer, their family caregivers, and their healthcare team helps improve well-being and quality of life.

To provide this caliber of support, employers today can offer benefits solely focused on cancer. AccessHope’s Cancer Support Team has experienced oncology nurses who are always ready to discuss tips on preparing for doctor appointments, treatment information, and mental health concerns. Employees stay with their local support system of family and friends, while getting the individual support they need at every step of the cancer journey.

Learn more about Cancer Support Team.


 This content is for informational and educational purposes only. While our Cancer Support Team service offers experienced oncology nurses who can provide information, assistance, and support, they don’t deliver mental health or psychological care.




UT Southwestern Medical Center Partners with AccessHope to extend nationwide access to cancer expertise 

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