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Understanding the effect of a cancer diagnosis on mental health and addiction

Posted on 01-19-2017 Posted in Health, Mental Health - 0 Comments

The National Cancer Institute considers anyone who has undergone or is undergoing cancer treatment a cancer survivor. Going by this definition, 1 in 30 Americans is a cancer survivor. Further, though many survivors get a new lease of life, for many it is a terrible waiting game where their own Damocles sword keeps hanging over their head.

This is because many cancer survivors live with the fear that their cancer will recur. About 9 out of 10 cancer patients dread their cancer will return. The intensity of this fear is different for different survivors. For some, the fear is episodic, while for others, it can be a debilitating presence overwhelming their lives. This is also known as the Damocles Syndrome.

Damocles Syndrome

Dionysus II ruled Syracuse during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Once he rewarded riches and a throne to a sycophant called Damocles. But, at the same time, he suspended a sword over him by a single hair. As a result, Damocles was unable to enjoy his newfound wealth since he was always worried about the sword.

Cancer survivors with Damocles Syndrome experience the same dread. They fear that their cancer will return and this prevents them from enjoying their life. Moreover, they are reluctant to make changes in their lives. These changes may include marriage, changing or applying for jobs or having children.

Stress and anxiety can lead to other problems

The sustained anxiety may cause stress that can lead to all sorts of problems like cognitive difficulties, palpitations and exaggerated emotional reactions, such as extreme fearfulness and paranoia. Some cancer survivors have also reported experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Certain cancer survivors also experience feelings of guilt, of feeling unworthy of the blessing of remission especially when fellow survivors die.

Cancer and addiction

Tell an individual that he or she has cancer and the brain immediately goes to death. According to Laura Sunn, a psychiatrist at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), an individual with co-occurring conditions (cancer and addiction) is at a significant disadvantage.

Sunn says, “This [addiction] makes it difficult for them to logically comprehend what’s being told to them. They are unable to pick up information, and they can’t even communicate in a healthy manner because, whether they are using substances or in withdrawal, their executive functions are impaired.”

Lynn Bornfriend, also a psychiatrist with the CTCA, says drugs are the “ultimate distraction.” She said that individuals with cancer must be fully cognizant of their health situation. Drug cravings derail any hope for real progress against the cancer because a patient’s state of mind is as important as medicines when it comes to fighting the disease. Any patient preoccupied with cravings will not be able to fight back the disease.

When physical diseases threaten the body, the health of the mind becomes no less important. Sovereign Health provides treatment for mental illness, addictions and co-occurring conditions, whatever the source of the disorder. We tailor treatment plans according to our patients’ specific needs. Contact our 24/7 helpline to learn more about our individualized approach to substance abuse and mental health treatment.

About the author:

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club, Fichte and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at

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