Navigating the mental health journey after discovering you have a cancer diagnosis

22 Aug 2021

Receiving a cancer diagnosis often comes as a shock and can most definitely leave you feeling completely overwhelmed and out of control.

We asked psychologist and author, Dr. Jodie Fleming, a breast cancer survivor herself, for insights into how you can best protect and support your mental health following a cancer diagnosis.

Jodie stresses that it is important to recognise and acknowledge whatever emotional reaction you have to your diagnosis and allow yourself time to experience it.

Your doctor or psychologist will be well aware of when your stress response moves from normal to disordered (generally after it has been going on for more than one month) and will be keeping an eye on you.

This is an important time for you to prioritise self-care, be aware of, and look after your mental health. Fears, anxiety, decision-making, information overload can all impact your mood and general functioning. Take comfort knowing that they are more than common occurrences and you are not the only one to experience these emotions. At this early stage of diagnosis, taking care of your mental health can be even more important than focusing on your physical health.

Set clear boundaries and limit time with those who drain your emotional energy

There will never be a better time to put yourself and your needs first. This does not come naturally for many, but you will benefit from surrounding yourself with your ‘people’, the ones who are able to show up and support you in the ways that you need.

This may require you to be a bit more assertive than usual. Be honest and open. Share information about your process so that they can understand and empathise with what you are going through.

Most importantly, set clear boundaries and limit time with those that are seeking support from you or are bearers of toxic positivity.

Dr. Fleming explains that Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, hypothesised that in our early stages of cognitive development we go through a phase of magical thinking where we believe that merely thinking something will make it occur. We grow out of this phase around age 7, yet many adults continue to have a version of magical thinking into adulthood.

Toxic positivity may fall under this category, where platitudes of ‘just stay positive and it will all be alright’ can be offered as if thinking will make it so.

Toxic positivity from others can serve to invalidate your normal human reactions to your abnormal and worrying situation. It can create a sense of shame for thinking or feeling anything other than positivity. The main flaw in this constant state of positivity is that it’s impossible to be positive and optimistic all the time, particularly when you have received a cancer diagnosis. You can read more on Toxic Positivity here.

Focus on a strong foundation for your mental health

In the early days of receiving your diagnosis, do your best to focus on building or maintaining a strong foundation for your mental health.

This includes eating well, a healthy sleep routine, and exercising regularly. Engaging your social support network is super important and research tells us time and time again that having good quality social support is one of the most important coping strategies in our toolkit.

Checking in with your self-talk and managing unhelpful thoughts and beliefs can have a massive impact on your overall mood and behaviors. You may need some help learning some effective thinking tools and accessing a psychologist might be helpful for that.

This can be very cost-effective if you receive a mental health care plan referral from your GP and may also be available as a part of your multi-disciplinary health care team, once that is in place.

Maintain your normal routine, as closely as you can

Play, leisure, and pleasure are also super important to keep your mental health balanced. Although you will be busy with medical appointments, meeting with your health care team, and making significant decisions, it is important to maintain your normal routine, as closely as you can.

Mindfulness can bring balance and reduce worries and anxiety

Mindfulness and gratitude practice are now also recognised as major pillars of good mental health and this most definitely applies to living with a cancer diagnosis. Mindfulness techniques certainly helped Dr. Fleming cope with the side effects of chemotherapy and she wrote about how she used them in her breast cancer memoir, A Hole in My Genes.

There are apps that you can easily download to your phone to help you learn and practice mindfulness techniques, such as Headspace and Smiling Mind. A psychologist will also be able to arm you with tools to use when you are feeling particularly anxious or overwhelmed.

Never forget, at Pink Hope, we are here to support you through all stages of your journey, so please remember, we are just a phone call, email or DM away. And our incredibly supportive community, who are on this journey as well, are here for you too.

This article was sponsored by Astra Zeneca and developed independently by the team at Pink Hope in consultation with medical experts.