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CCO Blog (Admin View)

Easing cancer’s burden on mental health

Colleen Fox
Our Work 6 minutes

In any given year, one in five Canadians will suffer from a mental health problem. For people living with cancer and their families, the risk is significantly higher.

Colleen Fox
Colleen Fox, Group Manager
Psychosocial Oncology & Patient Education
Ontario Health (Cancer Care Ontario)

People can experience significant distress at any stage of cancer.

For some people, routine screening tests such as mammography or colonoscopy can be extremely stressful. Other people report that the anxiety of waiting for a diagnosis can be worse than the diagnosis itself.

Cancer treatments such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy also take a toll on mental well-being. Major depression affects up to 16 per cent of people with cancer and almost half of patients with cancer who are receiving palliative care.

After treatment ends, people can be caught by surprise by the lingering effects of cancer on their bodies, relationships, employment, finances, sexuality and spiritualty. These impacts, along with the fear of the cancer returning, can lead to clinically significant depression, anxiety and poorer quality of life.

Family members, too, may experience mental health problems as they try to support the complex physical and emotional needs of their loved ones. They often struggle under the burden of caregiver burnout and have to deal with grief after (or even before) the loss of their relative.

Help is available

Ontario Health (Cancer Care Ontario) and the Regional Cancer Programs recognize the importance of supporting patients and their families through these mental health challenges. The Ontario Cancer Plan 2019 – 2023 calls for timely access to psychosocial oncology services for patients across the province. These services address the psychological, social, practical, emotional, spiritual, functional and quality-of-life impacts of cancer on patients and their families.

For example, patients at Ontario’s 14 regional cancer centres and most partner hospitals can assess and monitor their symptoms (including mental health symptoms) using the Your Symptoms Matter tool. The results from this questionnaire can be used to start a conversation between the patient and their healthcare team. In addition, symptom management guides are available to help people with cancer and their healthcare team manage cancer-related symptoms and side effects, including depression, anxiety and other symptoms that can affect psychosocial well-being.

By improving timely access to high-quality psychosocial services in Ontario, we can help ease the burden of cancer on patients and their families.

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