Mental Health and Cancer
- A study published in CANCER suggests a significant number of cancer patients have been experiencing loneliness in recent months.
- Empathy expert Dr. Kelsey Crowe offers proactive tips to help combat loneliness such as asking for specific help based on the strengths of the people in your support system.
- Caring for patients psychologically may lead to better physical outcomes with cancer treatment, so it is important to address patients’ mental health needs.
A recent study funded by the National Cancer Institute says a significant number of cancer patients have been experiencing loneliness in recent months. SurvivorNet breaks down the results of the survey and offers tips for combating loneliness.Read More
In order to fully understand these results, it is important to look at the numbers and evaluate the people who were surveyed. First, all participants in the study were older than 18 and had a cancer diagnosis. The majority of the 606 participants, 496, were females with breast cancer. Also worth noting, the study included individuals who were primarily white, well-educated and had an annual household income greater than $60,000.
A total of 285 people were categorized as “nonlonely,” while 321 were categorized as “lonely.” Compared to the “nonlonely” group, the “lonely” group was significantly younger, less likely to be married or partnered, more likely to live alone and reported a lower annual household income. The “lonely” group also had higher occurrence rates and severity scores for all of the symptoms that were evaluated including depressive symptoms, sleep disturbance and pain, among others.
The symptom burden – the severity and impact of symptoms reported – of breast cancer patients is high and researchers suggest that clinical evaluation and interventions are warranted. Also, because most survey respondents were financially stable, the study suggests a closer look is needed at disadvantaged cancer patients.
“Given the racial/ethnic disparities associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, we hypothesize that the high symptom burden reported by the patients in our study will be higher in patients who are socioeconomically disadvantaged,” lead author of the study Dr. Christine Miaskowski told EurekAlert!.
How to Combat Loneliness
Dr. Kelsey Crowe is the founder of Empathy Bootcamp, a company that offers courses to teach people about empathy intelligence. Generally, she believes people should give help without waiting to be asked – like she promotes in her book There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love. But Dr. Crowe admits that COVID-19 has forced us to address loneliness in a different way.
“In this time of a pandemic, we, as people in need, have to figure out how to ask for help,” she said in an interview with SurvivorNet. “But it doesn’t always have to be common kinds of help that come up like cooking or child care ’cause not everyone’s a cook, not everyone likes kids.”
As a breast cancer survivor, she knows the cancer journey can be isolating.
“A lot of what we need is not only company, but it’s being noticed,” she said. “People can forget to notice us because the pandemic has made us so insular, so we have to help people get very specific about how to notice us.”
Dr. Crowe created the “empathy menu” to help people address these kinds of emotional needs. The menu suggests ways to help people in need based upon personality type.
“That menu has categories like the ‘work horse’ that might run errands, or the ‘creative type’ that might make something whether its a poem or a needlepoint, or the ‘musician’ that would send along their favorite playlist songs or the joker that can send funny clips,” she said.
The “menu” is designed to play into people’s strengths. It gives a certain type of person concrete things they can do to support someone facing hardship. Dr. Crowe recommends that people dealing with a cancer diagnosis actively try to identify the strengths of the people within their support system and get creative about asking them to do little things to make them feel less lonely.
“So if you have a friend who loves music you might have to just say, ‘hey man, would you mind putting together a playlist for me,'” she said. “And the best thing about it is this person likes to do that.”
She says asking for help in specific ways is often better than just saying, ‘I’m lonely’ because people can be overwhelmed by the gravity of this statement.
“If we just say I’m really lonely, people feel then like ‘oh my god, so now I have to hang out with you a lot’ and they may not feel able to do it for pandemic reasons or because they’re very busy,” she said. “It’s a lot less overwhelming and a lot more actionable if you find somebody’s empathy strength… and ask them for that gift.”
So if you’re a cancer patient or just feeling lonely, try thinking creatively. Ask your artistic friend if they have time to paint you a picture of your favorite beach. Ask your movie-loving sister to do an Amazon watch party for the new film you’ve been dying to see. There’s no right or wrong answers, but it’s important to help people help you when you’re dealing with something like cancer that can already feel so isolating – especially during a pandemic.
Cancer and Mental Health
Dr. Crowe knows that cancer is never going to be an easy thing to deal with on a personal level. In some cases, the emotional trauma from cancer can progress into serious depression or anxiety.
Dr. Scott Irwin, a psychiatrist and Director of Supportive Care Services at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said in a previous interview for SurvivorNet that caring for patients psychologically could lead to better physical outcomes. This phenomenon occurs partly because conditions like depression and stress can make it harder to tolerate treatment.
“Actually, there is data [that show] that if you have extra stress or depression that you may not recover or you have a higher risk or recurrence,” Dr. Irwin said. “So in treating the depression, we’re actually impacting the cancer care outcomes.”
Dr. Irwin also says that the topic of cancer patients and depression is interesting because many people wrongly assume that because a person has cancer they are depressed.
“85 percent of patients do not get what would be considered a clinical depression. 15 percent do,” Dr. Irwin says. “For prescribing medications for depression in the context of cancer, I often try to choose medications with the lowest side effect profile.”
Many comprehensive cancer centers – like Cedars-Sinai, where Dr. Irwin works – do have supportive care centers and teams of specialists dedicated to helping people going through these experiences. If you are a cancer patient struggling with your metal health, it is important to reach out to your doctors or seek professional help from therapists or supportive care specialists.