Hearing the word “cancer” invokes a chilling sensation for patients and their families. For some, the “C” word becomes a harsh reality. Mesothelioma is a fatal type of cancer caused by the exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma patients experience not only physical pain but also face significant mental consequences. An individual’s mental health is just as significant and valuable as their physical health.
There are several psychological aspects and stressors that mesothelioma patients are forced to endure throughout their treatment. Learning how to cope with a diagnosis of mesothelioma and the various modes of treatment is an important factor while on the road to recovery.
The Mental Impact of a Mesothelioma Diagnosis
A cancer diagnosis is a frightening and life-changing event. Maintaining a positive attitude and an optimistic mindset can make a powerful difference in recovery. It can be overwhelming to navigate doctors’ appointments, home health, and treatment options.
Many cancer patients struggle with mental health, and it may be comforting to know that you are not alone in feeling these overwhelming emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis. Cancer patients across the board struggle with shock, anxiety, depression, anger, and other mental health issues while battling mesothelioma. Studies have shown that cancer causes negative psychological impacts. Since mesothelioma is such a rare and distinct form of cancer, there or a limited amount of studies available. Most studies conducted have focused on the mental impacts of cancer as a whole.
A recent study focused specifically on patients diagnosed with mesothelioma and found that patients suffer significant psychological distress. The 2018 study concluded that “malignant mesothelioma is associated with the physical, emotional, and social functioning of patients, while also suggesting that the risk of developing asbestos‐related diseases among asbestos‐exposed subjects is associated with high levels of psychological distress, despair, and mental health difficulties.”
Preexisting Mental Disorders and the Development of Cancer
Psychiatrist Caroline P. Carney, MD, MSc, with the Indiana University School of Medicine, studied mental health as it relates to the risk of cancer. The study evaluated the medical claims of nearly 722,000 adults that were filed over a four- year period. Of all the subjects, roughly 72,000 filed claims of mental health. The researchers compared the two groups to determine those who develop cancer but did not file mental health claims.
The study notes that “[p]atients whose cancer diagnosis came within six months of their first mental health treatment were not included in the study since some mental health problems are caused by the cancer and not vice versa.”
The study concluded that “Mood disorders were the most common mental disorder linked to cancer. Thirty-two percent of men and 43% of women with mood disorders developed cancer less than two years after their diagnosis of the mood disorder.”
Additionally, the study revealed that roughly 17% of women and 11% of men had anxiety disorders prior to their cancer diagnosis. Improving mental health among non-cancer patients is just as important because it appears that a weak mental health can predispose these individuals to the development of cancer.
Depression and Mesothelioma
After confirming a diagnosis of mesothelioma, patients and their families experience an overwhelming feeling of shock and disbelief. This life-changing shock wave can be brief or last for several months. Depression is comorbid with cancer, meaning it goes hand in hand with a cancer diagnosis. Statistics show that depression plagues 15 to 25% of all cancer patients. The general population of adults display a 7% depression rate. The increase is to be expected among cancer patients and their families because of the life-altering and various adjustments that they may face throughout the treatment process.
There are a number of potential medical causes of depression in cancer patients. Possible symptoms of depression related to cancer include:
- High levels of pain
- Adverse side effects of certain treatments
- Side effects of medication
- Changes in lifestyle
A common myth is that all people with cancer are depressed. While depression impacts a multitude of cancer patients, not all experience clinical depression. Depending on the circumstances and other external factors, some people have more difficulty adjusting to and accepting their diagnosis.
It is not unusual for mesothelioma patients to have some sort of emotional response. Still, there is a difference between a healthy psychological response and those that arise to the level of depression. Another myth about cancer and depression is that it is normal for a patient who has cancer to be depressed. Therefore, it is crucial to communicate with your physician and team of health care providers to distinguish between depression and normal degrees of sadness and normal emotional responses.
The Benefits of Supportive Care
There is hope for mesothelioma patients that struggle with mental illness. Supportive care improves quality of life and incorporates powerful coping mechanisms. Mesothelioma patients who actively participate and engage in supportive care are patients who:
- Develop a positive mindset and push through chemotherapy or other modes of treatment and take advantage of other therapies to improve their physical and mental function.
- Seek and engage in mesothelioma support groups
- Locate counseling and proper therapy from a mental healthcare professional who has experience in cancer care.
- Focusing on their nutrition an improving their diet
- Contacting an asbestos attorney and exploring their potential case while obtaining accurate legal information on the possibility of compensation for themselves in their families.
Treatment Options and Coping Mechanisms
Finding the right doctor and care professionals can make a huge difference when it comes to your mental health. Remember, mesothelioma is a rare diagnosis. Therefore, it is essential to locate a mesothelioma specialist. Additionally, it is crucial to find a licensed mental health care professional whose expertise is with cancer patients.
Your team of health care specialists will work with you to evaluate potential treatment options for mental illness. A mesothelioma specialist is best equipped to understand and treat your individual needs. They can also point you in the direction of a mental health care specialist that can work with you and work to improve your overall mental health. Your doctor should work closely with your network of other health care professionals to construct an all-inclusive treatment plan to make your recovery more manageable.
There are a significant number of resources available, including counseling and therapy, that could be beneficial for your treatment. There are various forms of therapy and counseling options for both mesothelioma patients and their family members. Mental health treatment ranges from individualized to group therapies to medical intervention. Some of the most effective techniques that introduce coping mechanisms are found and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “[a] critical part of cancer care is the recognition of the levels of depression present and determination of the appropriate level of intervention, ranging from brief counseling or support groups to medication and/or psychotherapy. For example, relaxation and counseling interventions have been shown to reduce psychological symptoms in women with a new diagnosis of gynecological cancer.”
Support groups are also an effective way to unite mesothelioma patients who face similar challenges. Support groups provide patients with an opportunity to share their personal experiences and struggles with those who can relate. It offers tremendous emotional support that may be difficult to get elsewhere.
Adding a Four-Legged Friend
A pet can provide serious mental relief and genuine companionship. Spending time with animals can improve the mood and morale of mesothelioma patients. Pets can include dogs or cats. The animals usually accompany mesothelioma patients during treatment sessions or during therapy. Pets can reduce anxiety and provide a sense of hope and purpose.
Natural Ways to Fight the Mental Effects of Mesothelioma
There are “less invasive” ways to improve your mental health while fighting mesothelioma. Keeping a journal is a productive way to express your emotions and thought when you may not be ready or feel comfortable telling anyone else. It can be helpful to reflect and look back on your journal entries as a reminder to how far you have come and can help in the future should you seek further counseling or other mental health intervention.
Another positive form of expression is to create art or music. This method of expression serves as an extremely beneficial creative outlet releasing the roller coaster of feelings you experience in your struggle with mesothelioma.
Light exercise is a great way to cope with your feelings and provides an avenue so you can clear your mind. Simply, exercise increases blood flow and, in turn, increases endorphins, which produces a happy feeling and boosts your mood. Before engaging in exercise, be sure to contact your doctor to discuss how much activity your body can tolerate and to prevent you from pushing yourself too far.
Meditation is a unique but effective approach to combatting the mental effects of mesothelioma. There are different types of meditation. Most are centered around spiritual aspects and overall awareness. Other forms of meditation focus on mindfulness. It is considered safe for mesothelioma patients. However, some forms of meditation involve fasting, which is not typically recommended for patients.
Complementary Therapies in Medicine published a study in 2013 that explored the effects of breast cancer patients practicing meditation while undergoing radiation therapy. The study found that the patients engaging in meditation therapy experienced a reduction and anxiety and fatigue. Additionally, the patients reported an overall improvement in their quality of life.
This study produced a positive result and concluded, “… an affirmation can be made that meditation can be used as a non-invasive intervention treatment for improving fatigue, anxiety, quality of life, and emotional faculties of women with breast cancer.” Meditation seems to be a safe and beneficial therapy for mesothelioma patients.
The Future of Mesothelioma and Mental Health
Mental illness does not cause cancer, but cancer can and usually does invite mental illness. It is worth discussing therapy options with your health care providers as some offer free mental health services to patients. Obtaining the right supportive care helps mesothelioma patients achieve and maintain strong mental health after a diagnosis and throughout their course of treatment.