Cancer, COVID-19, and Mental Health

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

APRIL 20, 2020

Cancer survivor walks his dogThe focus of this blog is always on living with cancer. This can mean getting through difficult treatments or difficult relationships or difficult moments. Right now, as the world struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic, all of us are even more challenged. I have written before about the unique perspective cancer patients and survivors may have on this experience. As one of my patients said to me yesterday, This is not my first rodeo. The event is different, but the overall feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, and isolation are the same.

A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 45% of Americans feel that the coronavirus pandemic is affecting their mental health.

This is not surprising. Many of us are feeling scared and lying awake in the middle of the night with our minds and hearts racing. Many people have associated worries that make the generalized anxiety even more intense, such as: job loss, financial stress, the need for social distancing, and concern for distant family and friends.

What can you do to help yourself? What are the things most likely to reduce depression and anxiety?

First, remind yourself that these feelings are quite normal and appropriate reactions to a genuinely scary problem. As I often remind my patients with cancer, it is normal to be scared. Cancer and the coronavirus are not the equivalent of a boogeyman under the bed or in the closet. They are real threats and must be acknowledged and respected. Sometimes I worry more about people who insist that they are doing just fine. Although that denial may be very useful in the short term, it is likely to crack at some point and create an even larger and more intense set of feelings.

Many strategies that helped you through cancer will help now, including:
  • Move your body. If you are tossing and turning at night or sitting on the couch, feeling paralyzed with worry, get up. Whether you take a walk or empty the dishwasher or pet the dog does not much matter. Just move.
  • Try to get outside every day, even in less than perfect weather. The advice about wearing masks in public has changed, but use common sense. If you are running or walking quickly, a mask can be uncomfortably confining. If you are in an uncrowded area, it is probably fine to go outside without one as long as you have one on hand in case you run into neighbors and want to chat. If you are walking in a crowded area, wear the mask.
  • Consider meditating.
  • Stay in touch with friends. In addition to phone calls, many of us are relying on Zoom or FaceTime or other platforms to see each other while we talk. Having a virtual lunch, cup of tea, or glass of wine with a friend can actually be fun.
  • Write down what worries you. Put your concerns on a piece of paper or in the computer or start a journal. Writing them down can be an effective way to moving them a little further away.
  • Make an action plan. After you write down those worries, consider each one and figure out how you could manage it if necessary. For example, if you are worried about childcare if you became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized, make a plan for coverage.
  • Try to eat healthy and well. But allow yourself a few treats.
  • Connect with a therapist for even a few sessions. We are all doing telehealth.

Remember, none of these tips will solve the problem or fix things. They may, hopefully, help you get through these days a bit more easily.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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