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Women's Behavioral Health: Cancer Services at UPMC in Central Pa.

The psychiatrists and therapists at Women’s Behavioral Health Specialists help women manage pre-existing mental health conditions during cancer treatment and treat stress, anxiety, and mood disorders that develop after a cancer diagnosis.

Treatment for stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions during your cancer treatment depends on the specific cause, your symptoms, and the severity of your condition. Depending on your condition, your doctor may recommend one or more treatments, including:

  • Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. These medications may be prescribed to treat symptoms that are moderate to severe. However, before prescribing psychiatric medication, your physician will consider the impact of medication on your cancer treatment plan, as well as how the medication may interact with other medications you are taking. If you are already taking medication for a mental health condition, our psychiatrists will discuss the risks and benefits of the medication with you and your oncologist to determine the safest and most effective mental health treatment.
  • Counseling. Our practice offers one-on-one counseling and group therapy to help women discuss and manage stress, depression, anxiety, and mood disorders during cancer treatment and survivorship. Our specialists may also recommend light therapy, exercise therapy or other alternative options to help you manage your condition. We also consult with our patients for end-of-life decisions and provide a type of therapy called meaning-centered psychotherapy, which focuses on improving patients’ ability to recognize their purpose for existence, spiritual well-being, and quality of life.

What are the mental health issues related to cancer?

A cancer diagnosis can cause a variety of emotions, including sadness, grief, fear, anger, frustration, stress, and worry — and these feelings can be overwhelming. As a result, some women develop feelings of depression or anxiety that are constant and severe.

Women may also experience cognitive problems — such as confusion, difficulty concentrating, slower thinking, and memory problems — as a side effect of cancer treatment. These cognitive problems are sometimes called “mental fog” or “chemo brain.”

Women who have pre-existing mental health conditions may need additional mental health care or expert advice on the risks and benefits of taking psychiatric medications during cancer treatment.

And, after cancer treatment is complete, some patients need ongoing mental health care to manage concerns about survivorship and cancer recurrence or lasting cognitive side effects of cancer treatment.

Mental health issues that require treatment after a cancer diagnosis may include:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Cognitive problems (“chemo brain”)
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Marital or family stress
  • Feelings of loss and grief
  • Panic attacks
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

What are the symptoms of mental health issues related to cancer?

Although it is normal to experience a variety of emotions after a cancer diagnosis, you should get help if you experience symptoms of depression or anxiety that last for more than a few days. Symptoms may include:

  • A loss of interest in everyday activities
  • Depression that doesn't’t seem to go away
  • Strain in your personal relationships
  • Difficulty thinking about anything other than your cancer
  • High levels of anxiety or worry
  • Inability to focus on completing tasks and difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in sleep patterns (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, early morning awakening, sleeping more than usual)
  • A marked increase or decrease in your appetite and weight
  • An increase in your use of drugs or alcohol
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Social isolation
  • Persistent feelings of pessimism, guilt, worthlessness, bitterness, or anger

Who is at risk for mental health issues related to cancer?

Anyone who is diagnosed with cancer can develop related cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues. For some women, a cancer diagnosis may worsen the symptoms of a pre-existing mental health condition.

If you have a personal or family history of mental health conditions, you may be at a higher risk of developing a mental health condition after a cancer diagnosis. And, the more difficult or demanding your cancer treatments become, the higher the risk of anxiety and depression.

How can I prevent mental health issues related to cancer?

The best way to prevent mental health issues is to be proactive about your mental and emotional condition and get help at the first signs of problems.

You should tell your oncologist about any side effects or other obstacles you are experiencing during or after your cancer treatment. Your cancer care team may be able to help you reduce side effects by suggesting integrative therapies or adjusting your treatment plan. Your cancer can team also can connect you with additional supportive services, such as financial counselors and social workers.

It may help to eat well, exercise, give yourself time during the day to relax, and spend time doing activities you enjoy. Deep breathing, yoga, massage, and guided imagery may help you relax.

Cancer patients have heightened vulnerability for distress, anxiety, and depression at several transitions in their cancer course:

  • Time of initial diagnosis or notification of recurrence or progression of disease
  • Time of initiation of treatment
  • Time of discontinuation of treatment
  • The experience of treatment-related side effects
  • End of life


Depression and Cancer Treatment for Women, Featuring: David Silver, MD 

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