By Dr Aishah Jamilah Mohd Salleh, Dr Siti Khadijah Yusof Azuddin, Prof Dr Moy Foong Ming and Prof Dr Noran Naqiah Hairi
Battling cancer: this itself can lead to severe consequences on the mental health of cancer patients. The current surge of COVID-19 cases is not helping either.
According to a survey, the mental status of about one-third of cancer patients is affected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, in the United States, 60% of cancer survivors reported feeling nervous and anxious, 16% feeling depressed, 14% feeling lonely and 13% feeling hopeless about the future. Solely in Asia, China has reported that 23.4% of cancer survivors experienced depression, 17.7% anxiety, 9.3% post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 13.5% hostility during the pandemic.
It is well documented that the rate of mental health problem is higher among cancer patients compared to the general population. Cancer patients may perceive themselves to have a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus due to their immuno-compromised state. Thus, they may experience an intensification of psychological distress during this challenging time.
Receiving social support from family, relatives and friends has been shown to offset or moderate the impact of stress among cancer patients. Therefore, support at home and through digital platforms needs to be strengthened to empower the cancer community to adapt to this challenging situation.
The following are recommendations for cancer patients and cancer survivors to help reduce the devastating impact on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Limit exposure to things that trigger anxiety. Staying informed is important, but it is also important to set boundaries for how much news you consume about the COVID-19 pandemic. Get health information about COVID-19 from reliable sources.
Talk to others – mental health professionals, family or friends – about your feelings and worrisome thoughts. Keeping those feelings inside can lead to more serious physical and mental health consequences.
Build social support - use social media to maintain a sense of connection even though you are not seeing each other in person. For example, celebrate special occasions, play online cards and board games together and read books to grandkids via videoconferencing.
Practise relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, prayer, meditation, yoga or tai chi.
Keep active even at home.
Get a good night’s sleep. Seek help if you are having trouble sleeping.
With the current increase of COVID-19 cases, we hope that cancer patients remain calm, take necessary precautions, maintain good social support with family and friends and frequently converse with their loved ones. The risk is imminent. Nevertheless, with good support it is not impossible to overcome these challenges. A peaceful mind will reflect the state of your body, and in turn, improve your immune system to stay strong and healthy.
Dr Aishah Jamilah Mohd Salleh, Dr Siti Khadijah Yusof Azuddin, Prof Dr Moy Foong Ming and Prof Dr Noran Naqiah Hairi are with the Public Health Department, University of Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) in Kuala Lumpur.