Speaking out about the effects of cancer on mental health

Thursday 31 October, 2019

People with cancer should not have to put up with depression - the black dog - or anxiety

Serious illness affects mental health. “Up to 40% of cancer patients experience depression and anxiety, among other mental health issues,” says Katherine Lane, Head of Cancer Information and Support Services at Cancer Council Victoria.

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

During cancer diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation, many people experience psychological distress ranging from normal fear, worry or sadness to severe depression – the dreaded “black dog” – and despair. Distress, depression and anxiety can be just as common in carers and family members.

"We listen to you on the phone," said Katherine. "We hear you through community consultations, such as those recently held for the Victorian Cancer Plan. And amplifying your voices, making sure they reach the appropriate people, is one of our priorities."

That’s why Cancer Council Victoria made a submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System.

“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.

"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," Katherine says. 

"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."

“I found that the psychological supports that are provided to cancer sufferers, their families and carers are woefully inadequate” – metropolitan cancer survivor.

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

  • identifying mental health issues: it needs to be clear which health professional is responsible for looking after the mental health of cancer patients, and how and when their mental health is to be checked, and that including the mental health needs of carers and family members should also be part of this process
  • providing adequate resources: 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 and carers.

When your mental health issues are treated, your quality of life is better

"We understand that governments don’t have unlimited resources," said Katherine.

"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 improves."

If you need to talk to someone, call 13 11 20 to speak with a cancer nurse.

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