Why does cancer affect your mental health?

And, is there anything you can do for your mental health with cancer to make life a little bit less stressful in the meantime?

You may or may not know this, but…

I’ve been a professional counsellor for the last 30+ years. And I’ve helped thousands of folks through incredibly hard times. Without tooting my own horn too much, it’s safe to say I know a thing or two about mental health!

Working so closely with cancer patients and their loved ones during the past decade, since CTOAM began, has made me realize, even more deeply, how crucial it is to have awareness about what you’re going through emotionally…

How Cancer and Mental Health Affect You

You see, cancer affects your mental health on 2 main levels. 

Today we’re going to explore the first one… 

1: The physical and hormonal changes in your body

Dopamine and Cancer

The legitimate physiological impacts of cancer on your body and your hormones…your ease of movement (or lack thereof) and any chronic pain you might be experiencing…any and all can be affected and have a powerful effect on your dopamine levels.

Dopamine is the hormone that produces happy feelings – I literally refer to it as the ‘happy hormone’! Having enough dopamine each day is key to feeling good. So anything that messes with your dopamine levels is sure to impact your mood and overall mental health.

Serotonin and Cancer

Serotonin is the hormone that helps to regulate your mood and ensure you get good sleep. And you might not know this, but while dopamine is made and stored in your brain, 98% of the serotonin in your body is found in your gut and relies on you having a healthy balance of bacteria there.

So, the foods you eat, any antibiotics you take and yes, any cancer treatments like chemo, radiation, and some targeted and immunotherapies will have a direct effect on your gut health and therefore, on your mood and sleep.

Cortisol and Cancer

And that’s not all…the physiological impacts of cancer also directly affect the amount of cortisol produced in your body.

Cortisol is the stress hormone, which – while essential for keeping us safe and away from danger – can have negative effects on our mood when too much is produced over long periods of time. 

So please hear this: 

Chronic pain and hormonal changes due to tumor size and location, as well as the effects of treatment, will have an effect on how much dopamine (aka the ‘happy hormone’) your body produces vs. how much cortisol (aka the ‘stress hormone’) it produces. 

And the treatment itself will almost certainly have an effect on the amount of healthy bacteria in your stomach, which will lower serotonin levels…and this will affect your mood and sleep. (It can also lead to the development of other cancers, like stomach or colon cancer, or conditions like ulcers and acid reflux down the road.)

Understanding the Impact of Cancer on Mental Health is Key

What does that all mean? 

It means that cancer patients like yourself are almost certainly going to be feeling – at some point – more anxious, restless, unsettled, sad, depressed or all of the above. 

It’s really important that you’re told to expect these emotional and mental effects from your cancer and treatment…

So that if you start to feel unusually down or anxious – like, say, when you start a certain treatment or are experiencing a certain pain – you can understand that this is just another one of the crappy side-effects of cancer.

Finding Hope in the Meantime

While this knowledge won’t make the anxiety or depression go away, it can help to put your experience of the stress or depression/flatness into perspective. Since you know that you aren’t going to feel this way forever. And that there’s a very good reason for why you’re feeling as you do.

It can also help give you concrete hope that when the treatment or pain stops, your mood will naturally start to improve and you’ll go back to feeling more like yourself. 

Does that make sense?

It might sound obvious when you see it written out like this…

But knowing why you may be feeling as you do can sometimes make a big difference in your ability to persevere through it.

Published by on April 14, 2021