Cancer + Depression: It’s a real thing

Photo Courtesy of Catherine Hudon/5Mphotographie

When I think of a cancer diagnosis and then I think of mental health, I have often looked at it as a mind-game.  Really, our minds want to make sense of why this diagnosis, why this disease? And then there is the piece of what can I do differently to control the outcomes of this disease; these are the ‘what ifs’ that play in the mind.

The reality is that no one knows, truly, for sure and this uncertainty can cause a lot of emotional turmoil, which can sometimes lead to fluctuations in mood, and eventually depression for some.  Many of the therapies and treatments that young women with breast cancer face also involve hormonal therapy. Early onset of menopause including symptoms like mood instability, hot flashes, and changes in sexual function can all play a part in causing women with breast cancer to feel anxious or depressed.

That said, there are things you can do to aid maintaining mental well-being and staying on top of your mental health when cancer has come to play a part in your life:

Find a supportive circle

Whether you are newly diagnosis, living with cancer or are seen as no evidence of disease, to have a supportive circle is integral.  When I say supportive circle, I mean everyone – from family and friends to medical professionals.  You want to know that everyone who is supporting you, is truly with you – they are understanding of your decisions and they are helping (even when it is hard to ask).

Take ownership

So much of cancer treatment is determined by doctor’s appointments, treatment schedules, side-effects. Taking ownership could be choosing to shave your head rather than waiting for hair to fall out; doing things to make you feel good when you are able – going out with your girlfriends, doing things that bring you joy. Also, there are so many decisions that can come with cancer treatment. Try to consider the decisions you are making with the lens of looking back at this time in your life in a number of years, how do you want to feel about your decisions and how you handled a cancer diagnosis.

Make it not all about cancer

So much of cancer diagnosis and living with cancer becomes all about the cancer.  A great thing you can do is shift the focus.  If you are going to a chemotherapy treatment, radiation, blood test or whatever, consider not only taking one of your supportive peeps, but make it fun. Yeah, fun, one of my best chemo days was when I went for lunch with one of my besties – no I couldn’t really eat, but it was something we would typically do and it made all the difference in the day.

Consider venturing into mindfulness practices

Mindfulness practices have been shown help people with pain management and with anxiety Many of the supportive organizations for people living with cancer offer some form of meditation, yoga or mindfulness practices (see list below and check out Rethink’s video here!)

Being body aware

After cancer diagnosis, it can seem that we can become hyper-aware of our bodies; however knowing our bodies, knowing what seems normal, what is a bit different; knowing what discomforts tend to pass and what is something new; tuning into what our intuition is saying to us, all are ways to care for ourselves and our bodies. Further, to take the step to love one’s body after cancer – scars and all, despite the feeling of betrayal of cells, is ever so important.  Consider exploring practices that encourage body awareness.

Seek out groups

There are a few different sorts of groups to consider.  There are support groups for young people who have had a cancer diagnosis – this helps breaks the isolation and why me factors.  Then there are the social groups where you are with others who have been diagnosed with cancer but not doing things directly cancer-related – like art workshops, yoga, fitness programs. These are great to take a break from “cancer world” and yet can allow you to just be or you can chat without much explanation with others who have been there and “get it”.  Then there are the groups for the general public which are all about integrating yourself back into life after the bulk of treatment is completed.

Here are some organizations that provide programs for people living with cancer:

Young Adult Cancer Canada: retreats, conferences and monthly social activities (Localife)

Callanish which offers retreats, support groups and art therapy to young adults in the Greater Vancouver Area

Wellspring has a wide variety of programming from cancer-specific support groups to yoga to nutrition to writing classes.  They have locations in Calgary, Edmonton, southwestern Ontario and Toronto.

ART for Cancer Foundation: art workshops for people living with cancer and their caregivers in the Greater Toronto area

Maplesoft: various programs offered in the Ottawa area.

If you live in a more remote part of Canada or want more flexible access to support, please consider connect to others through something like Cancer Chat Canada or peer support through Rethink Breast Cancer’s Young Women’s Network.


For more information on Mental Health Week and how you can get involved click here.

You may also be interested in

Care Guideline #6 For Young Women With Breast Cancer: Family Support
Cancer is Crap: What Caused It?
Update: Care Guidelines For Young Women With Breast Cancer
50 Carroll Street Toronto, Ontario Canada M4M 3G3
Phone: 416 220 0700
Registered Charity #: 892176116RR0001

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