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Taking Care of Your Mental Health During Cancer and COVID-19

Publication: Austin Medical Times, Corsicana Daily Sun, Houston Medical Times

There are no words to fully describe living with cancer. Fighting cancer can affect every area of your life – from work, to relationships, to the activities you freely enjoyed before you were diagnosed. All of that takes a toll on your emotional well-being.

Now, add living with the COVID-19 pandemic, and these challenges become compounded and potentially overwhelming.

In a recent study by the National Institutes of Health, more than 70% of cancer patients surveyed reported pandemic-related mental health challenges. Underscoring this trend, the American Cancer Society reported one in four people with cancer suffer from major or clinical depression.

But there are ways to cope – specific steps you can take to protect your emotional health. As you ring in the New Year, consider these suggestions for caring for your mental health and discerning when it’s time to reach out for the support you need.

Prioritize your emotional well-being.

There is no blueprint for living with cancer during a global pandemic; however, getting “back to the basics” of what makes you feel fulfilled and rested is a great place to start. Take small steps to reduce stress and improve your outlook on life while still following COVID-19 safety guidelines:

  • Schedule safe interactions with loved ones such as going on a walk, sitting on a patio, or video calls.
  • Practice positivity by writing out and hanging favorite quotes around your home.
  • Join an online cancer support group to build community and share experiences.
  • Cope with stress in healthy ways like getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals, or exercising when you feel up to it.
  • Spend time on hobbies you enjoy like painting, playing music, or reading.
  • Take a break from or limit the amount of time you spend each day reading or watching the news and engaging with social media (put your phone down!).
  • Set short and long-term goals of things you want to accomplish. Take satisfaction in checking items off your list and having something to look forward to.

Watch for the signs.

It’s normal to feel fear, frustration, or sadness at times while living with a cancer diagnosis, but sometimes these feelings can move from manageable, to unrelenting, to overwhelming. It’s important to recognize when what you’re feeling is not going away or is getting out of hand.

If you or someone you care for is struggling with consistent anxious, worried thoughts or feeling overwhelming sadness that makes it difficult to get out of bed or do normal daily tasks for several days in a row, it’s time to seek help.

Get the support you deserve.

Sometimes our own best efforts to protect our mental health are not enough. Mental health conditions like anxiety or depression can be treated in several ways, including talk therapy and medication. Reach out to your healthcare provider to discuss how you’re feeling, and build a plan together to treat your symptoms.

It takes courage to prioritize your mental health. But there’s no better New Year’s resolution to make than to care for your emotional well-being every day and invite others alongside you to lend their support during your cancer journey.

Ashwani Agarwal, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Corsicana, 301 Hospital Drive in Corsicana, Texas. For more information, visit TexasOncology.com.

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