Social & Emotional Impacts of Cancer
In addition to the physical effects of cancer, survivors will experience psychological, emotional and spiritual impacts. Many of these affect quality of life and can show up many years after treatment. Here are some of the most common issues that cancer survivors may deal with:
Fear of Recurrence
Many survivors live in fear that their cancer will come back at some point. For some, a milestone event like the anniversary of their diagnosis or the end of care by their cancer doctor can trigger these feelings. Fear can be a good thing if it motivates you to discuss health changes with your doctor, or it can cause unnecessary worry. Knowing your own body can help distinguish between normal changes and more serious symptoms.
Grief is a natural result of loss. With cancer, such losses may include your health, sex drive, fertility and physical independence. To get past your grief, it's important to let yourself experience all these feelings. Support groups and counseling can help you work through these issues.
It is estimated that 70% of cancer survivors experience depression at some time. Depression can be hard to diagnose in cancer survivors because the symptoms are so similar to the side effects of cancer treatment, including weight loss, fatigue, insomnia and inability to concentrate. A 10-year follow-up study has found that symptoms of depression were associated with a shorter survival time, so it's crucial to seek treatment for depression.
Body Image & Self-Esteem
Cancer survivors who have experienced amputations, disfigurement and loss of organs like the colon or bladder often grapple with how they relate to themselves and other people. A negative body image and low self-esteem can affect a survivor's ability for intimacy with a partner, which has a major impact on quality of life. Good communication is essential to retaining or regaining intimacy after cancer. Seek medical advice if problems continue.
Many survivors find that life takes on new meaning after cancer, and will renew their commitment to spiritual practices or organized religion. Research suggests that spirituality improves quality of life through a strong social support network.
Some people feel guilty for surviving cancer when others don't. You may wonder 'why me?' or begin to re-evaluate your life goals and ambitions. If you suffer from a prolonged sense of guilt, a psychotherapist, clergy member or support group can help talk you through your feelings.
How other people react to their illness is perhaps the biggest challenge faced by cancer survivors. Friends, coworkers and family members may feel awkward about discussing your cancer diagnosis. They may remain silent, avoid you or pretend nothing has happened. Others may use humor in an effort to take your mind off the situation, instead of being someone with whom you can discuss your issues. Because cancer can be a long-term illness, overcoming communication barriers early is crucial.
Life & the Workplace
Re-entering social and professional life can be accompanied by many fears: worry about being out in the world with an increased risk of infection; not having enough energy to get through a workday; and anxiety about not being able to think clearly because of "chemobrain" or memory loss. After struggling with life-and-death questions, many cancer survivors feel apart from peers who haven't had the same experience, and may turn to other survivors for support and friendship.
You may be reluctant to reveal that you are undergoing cancer treatment to your employer or coworkers for fear of being treated differently or even losing your job and health insurance. This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that contributes to emotional stress. Again, open communication with your colleagues helps get past these feelings.