Advocating for the mental health of people affected by cancer

Thursday 31 October, 2019

More needs to be done to recognise and meet the mental health needs of people affected by cancer.

Serious illness affects mental health. During cancer diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation, many people experience psychological distress ranging from normal fear, worry or sadness to severe anxiety, depression and despair.

While many people live well after cancer treatment, up to 40%, according to Katherine Lane, Head of Cancer Information and Support Services at Cancer Council Victoria, will experience a range of mental health issues that can significantly affect their quality of life.

“Last year, more than 1,600 callers to the 13 11 20 line were noted as having ‘psychological and emotional support’ as their main reason for contacting us.”

Distress and depression can be just as common in carers and family members.

“With all I went through and have to go through [it] doesn’t add up to near the pain of the emotional side of having cancer” – regional cancer survivor.

Advocating for people affected by cancer is one of Cancer Council Victoria’s priorities, and the reason for our submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System

"People affected by cancer may not accept offers of help due to a belief that their distress is not bad enough to need expert help," said Katherine.

"An even greater problem is that the help so many people need simply isn’t there. There is no specific training that deals with both mental health and cancer for either mental health workers or cancer specialists."

“If a patient registers with high distress levels and psychosocial issues often we don’t have anyone to refer them to” – regional clinician.

Cancer Council Victoria had two major recommendations for the Royal Commission:

  • distress screening: it needs to be made to clear who is responsible for looking after the mental health of cancer patients and how their mental health is to be screened and documented, and that including the mental health needs of carers and family members should also be part of this process. In addition, successful mental health screening pilots should be implemented and expanded.
  • resourcing: we need a state-wide plan to cover the mental health needs of people affected by cancer and dedicated funding to improve access to specialist care, as well as general investment in educating all those who work with people affected by cancer to better treat mental health issues in their patients.

Cancer Council Victoria recommends that health professionals also need to check the mental health needs of carers and family members (

"We understand that governments don’t have unlimited resources," Katherine said. "But we also know that when people with cancer have adequate support for their mental health needs, they are more engaged in their treatment, better able to cope with its demands and their quality of life and outcomes improve."

If you are someone you are treating, including carers and family members, needs emotional support in addition to the cancer treatment, we urge you to recommend that they call 13 11 20  to talk to a cancer nurse.

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