“When I was first diagnosed with bowel cancer, looking after my mental health was one of those things that was at the bottom of my list because I was trying to stay alive physically,” said Wendy, a mother of three, who was diagnosed with metastatic bowel cancer last year.

Although focusing on the body is incredibly important, so too is the state of your mind.

According to Beyond Blue, one in six Australians is currently experiencing depression or anxiety or both.

People living with or beyond bowel cancer are among this group – but, for those with a cancer diagnosis, attention is usually focused on the body – how it’s responding to treatment, if cancer has metastasised, will cancer come back . . .

“There is a significant life adjustment that occurs through cancer – emergency hospital visits, grief for a life forever changed, body image adjustments, guilt for not being able to be there for my children through my illness, missing important family times, sadness for the strain I put on my husband as the solo parent during my hardest weeks, changes to friendship circle and returning to work,” said Sally, nurse and bowel cancer advocate, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2018 when she was 38.

“A cancer recovery is not just about the immediate months during and after treatment. It is long term, and for some people the lingering impacts of cancer are life-long,” Sally said.

Studies show that people living beyond bowel cancer are 37% more likely to report symptoms of anxiety or depression than the general population, resulting in a reduced quality of life.

Don’t ignore the signs

Many people who are diagnosed with bowel cancer experience a range of emotions like sadness and grief that ebb and flow throughout the cancer continuum.

This also goes for family members or friends of someone who is diagnosed.

While these are normal reactions to experience upon a cancer diagnosis, depressive disorders can be more serious, requiring special attention.

Lifeline lists the following as common symptoms of depression:

  • Feeling sad, ‘flat’ or down most of the time (for two weeks or more)
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy (for two weeks or more)
  • Change in appetite, sudden weight loss or gain
  • Having problems sleeping or sleeping all the time
  • Feeling tired or lacking energy and motivation
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Feeling angry or lashing out
  • Difficulty concentrating or being indecisive
  • Increased alcohol and drug use
  • Withdrawal from social interaction
  • Thoughts of suicide

Seek help

Depressive disorders, anxiety and cancer-related PTSD add excess stress to the body which is trying to heal and overcome cancer; research suggests patients with mental illness may have poorer clinical outcomes than those without.

“I was so glad that I reached out for mental health support early, not just for me, but also for my family,” Sally said, “I really believe that the right support has fast tracked my recovery.”

“Through my experience and mental health support, I am now stronger than I was before my cancer,” Sally said.

“There is amazing support out there, please access it. It will make a huge difference to your recovery and life ahead.”

If you’re feeling symptoms of depression, there are some things you can do:

  • Ask your health care team about treatments that can help.
  • Speak with your GP about developing a mental health plan.
  • Reach out to family members and friends.
  • Contact the Bowel Cancer Australia Helpline to speak with a bowel care nurse and get resources.
  • Join the Peer-to-Peer Network to connect with others going through similar experiences.
  • Take time in the day for deep breathing and relaxation.
  • Make plans with a supportive family member or friend to do something you enjoy or experience a new activity.
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco products.
  • Lifeline is available 24/7 on 13 11 14.
  • If it’s an emergency, contact ‘000’.