Cancer Survival: The Emotional Fallout

Featured Article, Healthy Living
on June 1, 2012


You’re healing from an onslaught of procedures–surgery, chemo, radiation–grateful for new territory: cancer survival.  Yet you may still feel emotionally raw, wondering what other challenges await.  Below, cancer therapists address how to handle mental and emotional hurdles that may arise.

  • Fear of recurrence. “Living with uncertainty is one of the big challenges of cancer survival,” says cancer psychologist Dr. Alyson Moadel, director of the Psychosocial Oncology Program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “But avoiding the fear doesn’t make it go away. Try to listen to the fear and accept it.” And consider joining a support group so you can connect to long-term survivors who are coping well.  Hospital cancer programs or the local American Cancer Society chapter can refer you.
  • Depression. “About 25 percent of people with cancer will become depressed,” says Dr. Mary Jane Massie, a cancer psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. The first step: Tell your doctor, who can refer you to a therapist trained to work with cancer patients. Treatments may include psychotherapy, antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.
  • Less than sexy. Treatment itself can alter sex drive, inducing premature menopause or altering hormonal output. Losing hair and acquiring scars can make you feel less than alluring, says Moadel: “Bring it up with your doctor, saying, ‘I’m noticing sexual changes: Is there something I can do or someone I can talk with?’ Solutions can include couples therapy, or even simple solutions like Viagra or over-the-counter vaginal moisturizers.”
  • Body image changes. Changes to your body that cancer and treatments cause can challenge your sense of self. Massie recommends theLook Good Feel Betterprogram sponsored by the Personal Care Products Council Foundation, the American Cancer Society and the Professional Beauty Association/National Cosmetology Association. It offers free workshops and webinars about skin, nail care, wardrobe and other cancer-related appearance changes. The website tells where to find programs. ttp://
  • A fuzzy brain. The brain is sensitive to both physical and emotional stress, says Moadel, and cancer survivors are affected by both.  You may notice “chemo” brain—difficulty concentrating, remembering, or thinking clearly.  Exercise, a good diet and stress management like yoga or psychotherapy may help. “A neuropsychologist can also identify cognitive issues and may prescribe cognitive exercises,” says Moadel. Changes usually recede over time.