Mental health therapy essential to recovery from cancer

If there’s ever an excellent example of the “mind-body connection” it’s when someone has cancer.

While some doctors have recognized the benefits of treating the “whole person,” it’s pretty much a crap shoot whether cancer patients get any recognition of those needs or not.

And as if the concept needed any more “official” recognition, a new study from the UK found that anxiety and depression may actually increase the death rate from a whole host of cancers.

So if you, or someone you love, are in the midst of a life-changing cancer diagnosis, there are some very important things (often quite simple) that may not only improve day-to-day life, but improve survival odds as well.

Is laughter really the best medicine?

It was looking like the mainstream was finally acknowledging that cancer patients need more than drugs or surgery to combat the disease.

The latest issue of JAMA Oncology eagerly reported that there was a special resource section to help cancer patients with the “emotional burden of cancer.”

But seriously, if there was a law over “bait and switch” that covered medical journals, these guys would be arrested!

It was nothing more than a simplistic one-pager containing abstract tidbits of information and some illustrations that looked like they came out of a children’s book headlined “Treatments for Cancer-Related Depression.” And it was no surprise that drugs got star billing!

But despite this ridiculous first-grade primer that took not one, but two experts to put out, the need for cancer patients to make use of a variety of therapies beyond mainstream medical treatments is very real.

As I said, some new research out of the UK found, after reviewing studies that followed over 163,000 people for a decade, that mental health and physical health may be more closely connected than we previously thought.

For example, those who had the highest levels of “psychological distress” were found to be 32 percent more likely to die from colon, esophageal, pancreatic and prostate cancers. And those suffering from leukemia were reported to be up to four times more likely to die from the disease if they were very anxious or depressed.

But there are some ways to combat cancer-related depression — without mind-altering drugs — that are a lot easier than you might think.

Dr. David Wakefield, a psychologist at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, believes in approaches such as spiritual counseling, pet therapy, and music therapy.

Music therapy can involve singing, playing an instrument, or even just listening to music that lifts your spirits.

Pet therapy is used in many hospitals to lower stress and has even been found to decrease pain. And while dogs are most often the therapists of choice, any animal that can offer companionship can help.

Then there’s the seemingly simple, but scientifically proven healing power of laughter. Dr. Wakefield says he makes it a habit to give his patients a list of the “100 funniest films of all time” as an antidote to many of the discouraging and depressing aspects of dealing with cancer.

In fact, laughter was put on the map as a treatment for pain by author Norman Cousins. While suffering from a debilitating illness he found that all it took was ten minutes of hearty laughing to give him two hours of pain relief — something even morphine couldn’t accomplish.

And it turns out, as Cousins discovered, that laughter has been proven to be a lot more useful than many of Big Pharma’s products. Studies have found it can boost your immune function, relax muscles, release natural painkillers called endorphins, improve blood pressure and help oxygen intake.

It’s quite obvious that the impact cancer can have on your emotional state — and vice versa — is of critical importance.

And although one of the country’s most esteemed medical journals didn’t give it much more than a passing glance, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t regard it as something just as important — maybe even more so — as any other treatment you’re receiving.