A cancer diagnosis can have a profound effect on feelings, roles and relationships, finances, and mental and physical health. Cancer can be a truly life-altering experience that leads people to see their priorities in new ways. This new way of seeing life can bring about positive changes but can also be disruptive and painful. It is common for people with cancer to feel distressed, anxious and sad.
The strain of coping with cancer diagnosis and treatment may be compounded by other life stressors, such as family dynamics, financial issues and professional challenges. Unmanaged stress can have a negative effect on health, including:
- increased blood pressure
- more rapid heart rate
- decreased digestion
- increased muscle tension
- higher levels of stress hormones like adrenaline, that can lead to impaired immune function.
For cancer survivors, returning to work may bring mixed emotions – relief that life is back to “normal,” fear and anxiety about how colleagues will relate to them or uncertainty about how they will manage their responsibilities or their feelings at work.
What patients can do
Discuss with your patient how they feel about going back to work and help them make decisions that are right for them. Encourage them to speak to their healthcare team if they notice mood changes. Consider medications for depression or anxiety.
Some strategies for changes in mood are:
- Learn stress management techniques.
- Learn to say no.
- Delegate tasks.
- Use breathing and relaxation techniques.
- Use visualization and guided imagery techniques.
- Find diversions.
- Use a sense of humour when possible.
- Connect with nature.
- The Feel Good Handbook: Using the New Mood Therapy Everyday (1989) by David Burns, published by William Morrow
- Screening Self-Tests – HeretoHelp
- If the patient is afraid that their cancer will return after treatment, refer them to this 30-minute talk on fear of recurrence by Dr. Christine Maheu
There are several ways that jobs can be modified to minimize impact on mood:
Modify work tasks:
- Identify non-essential job tasks and situations that may cause strong emotional or stress reactions.
- Discuss with the supervisor whether these tasks can be re-assigned or shared with co-workers.
- Identify supports at work that decrease stress.
- Discuss ways of providing these supports (e.g., giving written instead of verbal instructions, extending deadlines, more frequent breaks, working from home).
Modify the work environment:
- Request a quiet, private location where the employee can retreat if feeling overwhelmed.
- Create a quiet work environment when possible.
- Wear headphones to listen to soothing music.
- Declutter the workspace.
- Move the workstation to face a wall instead of a busy hallway to decrease visual distractions.
- Optimize the lighting in the workplace (neither too dark nor too bright).