OPINION: How to protect mental health of cancer patients amid the pandemic

Vital for cancer patients, families to adopt effective strategies to cope with stress


More than a year after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the focus has been, and rightly so, on public health and managing the fallout of the health crisis. One aspect that has not received much attention is, however, the impact of this ongoing outbreak on mental health. 

A recent survey conducted in the US by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit that specialises in health policy research, found that 55 per cent women and 38 per cent men reported that the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health. There are bound to be long-term effects of social isolation, extended lockdowns, economic recession, and mounting fatalities. 

Experts believe that anxiety and depression are likely to be higher in patients who have compromised immune systems, such as those battling cancer. A small but insightful study by the University of California, San Francisco, found that 53 per cent of adults with cancer were experiencing a deep sense of loneliness, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and sleep disturbance. While no comparable studies exist for India so far, the US study provides a glimpse into the mental health impact of the pandemic on people living with cancer. 

Double whammy  

Cancer patients are already battling a health challenge that is marked by requirements for regular health check-ups and often, chemotherapy and radiation therapy sessions. The pandemic has made visits to hospitals an anxiety-inducing experience, particularly for cancer patients as their compromised immune systems make them susceptible to infections. 

That apart, the lockdowns in different parts of the country to curb the spread of the second wave of COVID-19 have added to the existing hurdles faced by cancer patients and their families. It’s important to address how these myriad factors affect the mental health of people with cancer. 

Here are some simple, yet effective ways to cope with pandemic stress: 

Stay connected 

Staying at home does not mean that one has to be cut off from family and friends. While cancer patients are advised to maintain physical distance from family and friends to minimise the risk of contracting the infection, it’s strongly recommended that they make conscious efforts to remain connected to their support systems.

Family members and friends should also make efforts to reach out, knowing that patients with cancer may be more vulnerable to depression and anxiety in the current scenario. Video calls and conversations over social media platforms are great ways to stay connected.

Seek medical help 

Don’t delay treatments because of lockdown restrictions. Opt for tele-consultation with your doctor, either on video or a call, to ensure timely and personalised care. 

Even as cancer patients follow COVID-19 safety guidelines such as social distancing and avoiding crowded places, it’s vital not to miss out on regular conversations with the oncologist and/or your treating team. The cancer treatment has to continue as per schedule. Also, get vaccinated, after consultation with your doctor. 

Have a daily routine

One way to keep your spirits up is to have a daily routine. Those living in cities may be restricted to their apartments, but it helps to structure your daily routine with activities that make you happy. 

Indulge in a bit of gardening—nature has a great calming effect; meditate, practice yoga or any form of exercise. There’s no harm in dedicating an hour or two daily to watching some engaging content on the online streaming platforms. Find positive ways to manage stress. 

Adopt a healthy diet 

The standard advice to cancer patients to maintain a healthy diet and get adequate sleep work during the pandemic times as well. It is important to nourish your body and give it time to recuperate. 

Make healthy food choices. For instance, a home-cooked meal with vegetables and fresh fruits is a better alternative to processed foods. A healthy diet can work wonders for the immune system.

Make an emergency plan 

It’s prudent for cancer patients and their families to plan for extended lockdowns and possible disruption of transport and other services. Ensure that you have adequate stocks of over-the-counter or prescription medicines at home or have access to them from a pharmacy. 

In case someone at home contracts COVID-19, think of a place where they can self-isolate in order to protect the other vulnerable members in the household. Given the nature of the second wave and the large number of infections, cancer patients must be prepared for the possibility that they could also contract the infection. Have a backup of family members and friends you can reach out to in an emergency. They can help navigate this challenging time with suitable support and care. 

(The author is Psycho Oncologist, Cytecare Cancer Hospitals)