The Overlap Of Mental Health And Colorectal Cancer

March 6, 2024
written by:Claire Brandon, M.D.

We’ve covered some of the risks and reasons why younger people are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer and the anxiety that comes up and may get in the way. But now, let’s look closer at the connection between mental health and colorectal cancer. 

Stress and Anxiety: 

Chronic stress and anxiety can impact the body’s immune system and inflammatory responses, which may contribute to the development or progression of cancer, including colon cancer. While stress alone is not a direct cause of cancer, it can affect various physiological processes that may influence cancer risk.

Psychological Impact of Diagnosis: 

Being diagnosed with colon cancer can have significant psychological effects, including anxiety, depression, fear, and uncertainty about the future. These emotional challenges can affect a person’s overall well-being and quality of life during and after treatment.

Treatment Side Effects: 

The treatments for colon cancer, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, can have physical side effects that also impact mental health. These may include fatigue, pain, nausea, changes in body image, and sexual dysfunction, which can contribute to feelings of distress and psychological burden.

Social Support and Coping Mechanisms: 

Strong social support networks and effective coping mechanisms can positively influence mental health outcomes in individuals with colon cancer. Conversely, feelings of isolation or inadequate support may exacerbate psychological distress.

Health Behaviors: 

Mental health can influence health behaviors that may impact colon cancer risk or prognosis. For example, individuals experiencing depression or anxiety may be more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet, and lack of exercise, all of which are known risk factors for colon cancer.

Survivorship Issues: 

After completing treatment, some individuals may experience ongoing psychological challenges related to fear of cancer recurrence, adjustment to physical changes, and concerns about long-term health outcomes. These survivorship issues can affect mental health and quality of life in the long term.

Given all of this overlap, it would be reasonable to consider treating your mental health as a way to reduce your cancer risk. Reducing stress, understanding triggers with life behaviors that get in the way of being healthy (like alcohol use, poor eating, and lack of exercise), may all help to reduce your risk. Mental health should always be considered as part of your general health, in this case it can be lifesaving.

Claire Brandon, M.D.

Dr. Brandon is a dual board-certified psychiatrist in both adult psychiatry and consultation-liaison psychiatry (treatment of psychiatric illness in medically ill adults). She completed her residency and fellowship training at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and did a second fellowship in public psychiatry at New York University in New York City

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