Cancer Affects Emotional Health, Not Just Physical - Step To Health

Cancer Affects Emotional Health, Not Just Physical

Like other chronic degenerative diseases, cancer affects emotional health in a very significant way. Keep reading to learn more.
Cancer Affects Emotional Health, Not Just Physical

Last update: 27 December, 2020

Cancer is one of the most prevalent diseases in the world. In 2018 alone, there were 18.1 million new diagnosed cases. In addition, it’s estimated that the number of patients will continue to grow in the coming decades until it reaches 29.5 million new diagnoses in 2040. Here, we’ll talk about how cancer affects emotional health, not just the physical health of these patients.

There are lots of different causes of cancer. For example, there are genetics, infections, radiation or exposure to chemical carcinogens. In addition, there are lots of cases due to lifestyle.

In fact, tobacco, alcohol, sedentary lifestyle, chronic stress, obesity and inadequate nutrition are factors that directly or indirectly increase the risk of developing a malignant tumor.

Also, like any other disease that develops over time and has a high mortality rate, cancer affects emotional health in a very profound way.

How do patients react to the diagnosis?

When faced with a diagnosis, people react in very different ways. It depends on their personality and the meaning cancer has for them. According to Moorey and Greer (1989)patients respond according to their own adjustment style. The top five are:

  1. Fight. The person adopts a proactive attitude towards the disease, seeking information, and becoming involved in the treatment.
  2. Denial. The patient doesn’t talk about the problem, and acts as if they don’t have it.
  3. Fatalism. The subject puts himself in the worst possible scenario, whether they have the objective data to support that or not.
  4. Desperation. The patient has excess negative thoughts that promote a depressive picture.
  5. Anxiety. The patient has a hard time managing the uncertainty that the disease caused.
A woman being diagnosed with cancer.

Do the patient’s emotions change over time?

Just as patients go through different phases of physical illness, their thoughts, feelings, and emotions also change.

So, it will be very different if the patient responds to treatment and there’s a cure or if there’s a partial remission. Also, if there’s a relapse, if there’s metastasis or if it’s terminal.

Therefore, the patient’s personality plus the stage of cancer it’s in will determine how they adjust.

Anxiety and depression in cancer patients

Anxiety and depression are the most common psychological reactions in cancer patients.


According to various studiesthe prevalence of depression can vary between 4% and 58% of patients, depending on the population studied and the stage the patients are in.

The average is around 40%, a very high percentage compared to the general population.

A depressive episode can make the symptoms harder to control, and the patient may also refuse treatment more frequently.

For this reason, it’s important that people around them are familiar with depressive symptoms. Also, they need to communicate with the psycho-oncologist or person who provides emotional support to the patient.

A woman getting treatment in bed.


Cancer can cause lots of situations where patients feel nervous, and even intense fear. For example, some of the most common reasons are:

  • Reactive anxiety at diagnosis
  • Difficulty managing uncertainty
  • Reactivation of previous anxiety: phobia, panic attacks, generalized anxiety or post-traumatic stress
  • Fear of physical suffering and pain
  • Feeling of loss of control
  • Existential anguish
  • Anxiety increased by the pharmacological treatments themselves
  • Suffering from the pain of the family environment
  • Fear of treatments (side effects, surgery, physical and psychological consequences)
  • Fear of death

Emotional support is important

The survival rate of cancer has improved in recent years for many different types. However, it’s still a fatal disease for many patients.

Often, friends and family focus more on the test results and biopsies, and we forget that cancer affects emotional health. Also, studies show that patients may be suffering very significantly.

Finally, it’s essential that family and friends learn to provide emotional support to the patient. They can do specific training, consulting with a therapist or with a specialist in psycho-oncology.

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