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The Psychology of Cancer Survivorship

Dr. Arash Asher is the Director of the Cancer Rehabilitation and Survivorship program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about the issues cancer patients often face.

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What are some of the issues that come up for cancer patients after treatment?

Dr. Asher: There are physical issues and then there are psychological, emotional, and spiritual issues. In the physical domain, the most common complaint by far is fatigue, which may not seem very significant, but it often has a psychological component. It is consistently a major issue in cancer quality-of-life studies. Fatigue tends to be the most distressing symptom of all of the different symptoms that cancer patients go through.

Not pain?

Dr. Asher: We generally do a much better job of managing pain. And not everyone has pain. For example, of those with metastatic prostate cancer all over their bones, only 22% or so have pain, whereas fatigue is ubiquitous. Whether you’re going through chemo for breast cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, or any other type of cancer, it is almost impossible not to experience some fatigue. Fatigue is what really keeps people from doing things that are meaningful and important to them, so it tends to be the most distressing symptom, perhaps because it’s so common.

Is fatigue always directly associated with a treatment, or is that fatigue due to treatment plus any stress, anxiety, or depression the person may be having about the fact that they have cancer?

Dr. Asher: This is why I find this a fascinating problem: it may involve all of these facets together. It could be just the cancer itself, so you could have fatigue before you even start any treatment. Clearly, chemo and radiation cause fatigue. And it could also be the emotional stress— not sleeping well, nutrition changes, and being in pain all the time. It’s exhausting. Depression and fatigue have a lot of overlap, and the challenge is teasing apart all of these different factors and coming up with a plan once you sort them out.

Are there any other issues common to multiple cancers?

Dr. Asher: Everyone has fear of something, though fears may be different. For some, it just may be the fear of death, fear of the unknown, or fear of becoming dependent. Many fear losing independence and having to rely on or burdening their loved ones. This kind of fear is quite common.

In the cancer world, you hear a lot of talk about stress, but you very rarely hear people talk directly about fear. Is stress a code word for fear? Or is it different?

Dr. Asher: Stress is a complicated issue. Stress can be a good thing. There’s a good TED Talk about the science of stress.

More and more studies show that stress doesn’t really hurt us or kill us, but our perception of stress is more impactful. Studies show that people who perceive stress as something that allows them to rise to the occasion, perform better, or overcome a challenge tend to have higher survival rates. If someone views stress as something that’s going to hurt and negatively impact them, that perspective tends to have a spiral effect and is associated with higher mortality rates.

Over and over, studies show that chronic loneliness is associated with a poorer cancer prognosis. Chronic loneliness is a more negative risk factor than this loose idea of stress, which is so dependent upon one’s personal interpretation of the phenomenon. I guess you could tease out stress to be both fear and loneliness, though. Dr. Asher: It could be fear. It could be loneliness. It could be a sense of poor self-efficacy.

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Anxiety, Depression + Prostate Cancer

Mr. Chuck Strand is the CEO of Us TOO International Prostate Cancer Education and Support Network. He discusses the anxiety and depression often associated with prostate cancer.

A cancer diagnosis of any type triggers a wide range of initial reactions and emotions. While in some instances it might provide a sense of resolution, a more typical response may include sadness, loss, fear, guilt, stigmatization, embarrassment, anger, or disappointment.

Many aspects of living with a prostate cancer diagnosis can be sources of anxiety and depression— everything from anticipating the next PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test results to dealing with the post-treatment impact of common side effects like incontinence and erectile dysfunction (ED).

Unfortunately, men and their partners are not always fully informed about the likely side effects when selecting a treatment. In addition to managing the anxiety resulting from ED and/ or incontinence, an unexpected decrease in a man’s sexual virility can lead to a sense of betrayal or reduced trust in his medical provider or in the medical community in general. Recognizing and learning to cope with anxiety and depression can be critically important for effectively managing life with prostate cancer.

In a recent collaborative survey conducted by Us TOO International and CancerCare, 94 percent of men who were diagnosed with prostate cancer indicated that experiencing anxiety and/or depression is to be expected. Anxiety and depression can interfere with a person’s day-today activities, responsibilities, and relationships and can impact not only the person with cancer, but also the caregiver. Helping family members manage their distress may have a beneficial effect on the distress level of the person with cancer.

The stress and anxiety associated with a prostate cancer diagnosis can be significant enough to influence a man on active surveillance to opt for treatment earlier than necessary, resulting in what is often referred to as over-treatment.

Treatment decisions must address whatever aspect of disease management is a priority for each man, after he has sufficient information on all treatment options, possible or probable side effects, and management of side effects.

One man’s priority could be to do everything he can to minimize the possibility that prostate cancer will metastasize, while another man’s priority could be to do everything possible to maintain and maximize his quality of life. It is important for a man to recognize that once diagnosed with prostate cancer, the disease will unfortunately be a perpetual issue of concern and a potential source of anxiety due to ongoing monitoring of PSA test results at a minimum, regardless of the course of action he takes. While active surveillance can be emotionally exhausting, over-treatment can result in decreased quality of life with ED, incontinence, and the potential emotional and psychological impact of having second thoughts about his treatment choice.

Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression not only affect the quality of a man’s life, but can also keep the body’s immune system from functioning at its full capacity. Additionally, it can have a negative impact on adherence to treatment regimens. Therefore, it’s important to recognize these conditions and attempt to address them accordingly.

Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying—typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Symptoms include: feelings of fatigue or weakness, sweating (for no reason), chest pains, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, or inability to rest.

Depression is a feeling of severe despondency and dejection. Symptoms include: sleeping more or less (as compared with regular sleeping habits), loss of interest in daily activities, an unusual increase or decrease in energy, changes in appetite (eating either more or less as compared with regular eating habits), increased irritability or impatience, or difficulty concentrating.

Action Items to Help

Take action rather than passively accepting anxiety and depression as a given. Begin by acknowledging the very real relationship between anxiety, depression, and prostate cancer. Take stock of your own emotions. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. Make sure your diet is heart-healthy/prostate-healthy. Exercise even if you do not feel like it. Especially if you do not feel like it! Exercise releases endorphins and neurotransmitters that promote relaxation and eliminate excess cortisol, a hormone released during stress and associated with anxiety. Get mindful and try to incorporate yoga, meditation, acupuncture, or other holistic practices into your life. These lift the body, mind, and spirit. Try to keep a positive attitude when possible, but understand that ups and downs are normal and expected during prostate cancer treatment.

If appropriate, your doctor might be able to provide a referral to a counselor who can help. Some common techniques to effectively manage anxiety include talk therapy (especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [CBT]) and antianxiety medications. Depression can be managed though lifestyle changes to establish more connections and support, psychotherapy (including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), pharmacological treatment and, in advanced situations, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT).

Reach Out!

If you are dealing with prostate cancer and experiencing anxiety and/or depression, know that you’re not alone. Educational resources and support services are available to help cope with anxiety and/or depression.

Many men with prostate cancer and their wives/partners have dealt with anxiety and depression. It can be helpful to attend an Us TOO prostate cancer support group to share experiences and gather information and strength from those who have successfully managed these challenges.

To find an Us TOO prostate cancer support group near you, visit www.ustoo.org/Support-Group-Near-You, call 800-808-7866, or email ustoo@ustoo.org.

To join a prostate cancer support group via telephone, visit www.ancan.org/support-calls.

For individual counseling on anxiety or depression by telephone and online group counseling, contact CancerCare at 800-813-4673 or www.cancercare.org.


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Living A Normal Life After Prostate Cancer

Dr. Stephen Freedland is a urologist at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, California and the Director of the Center for Integrated Research in Cancer and Lifestyle, Co-director of the Cancer Genetics and Prevention Program and Associate Director for Faculty Development at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute.

Dr. Freedland treats the whole patient and not just a man’s prostate cancer.

He frames this month’s conversations about stress, depression, and prostate cancer.

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Historically, the goal was to cure cancer. We don’t really cure other major medical problems like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol: we manage them. Cancer, in general, and prostate cancer, in particular, are becoming chronic diseases. Occasionally, we need to do something more aggressive, but we really just need a management strategy so that people can live normal, healthy lives even after being diagnosed with cancer.

With this shift from quantity of life to quality of life comes an opportunity for us to have conversations about how prostate cancer and its treatments affect daily life. People are now younger at diagnosis than ever before. They’re still active. They’re still working. They’re still productive members of their families and of society.

How do we help them maintain that while providing the best cancer care? The challenge is how to marry those two. It’s not enough to focus on Gleason score, PSA, and stage. The focus is on the patient. On the person. It’s not just about the numbers.

I applaud Prostatepedia for delving into this subject matter with some very engaging conversations with some of the world leaders on the topic. I work very closely with Dr. Arash Asher at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. We focus now on nutrition, exercise, and psychosocial health. It’s really spectacular to see. Men are able to maintain much of their quality of life and sometimes feel better than ever.

At the same time, we’re realizing that what works for one patient will not necessarily work for another. There is no shortcut to sitting down with a patient, understanding his needs, goals, and desires, and then working together to come up with a care plan that manages his cancer and his side effects. We want to keep you psychologically strong and able to fight your cancer–but also to live your lives.

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