how can I cheer up my depressed mom?
July 25, 2008 6:36 PM   Subscribe

How can I help my mother deal with anxiety and depression after going through cancer?

About six months ago, my mom finished treatment for breast cancer. She had to have a mastectomy and it was a long scary process, but now she is a survivor. For the first couple of months after chemo she was eating all organic foods and taking extremely good care of her health, and she seemed to have a new outlook on life. I was so happy to see her never getting upset about minor things anymore and to see her exercising, socialising, etc. Everyone was so happy, my dad was promising that they would take the vacations they kept putting off. It was like a whole new beginning.

And then it sort of went downhill. Mom has had steadily increasing pain throughout her body, which finally after three months of tests they may have diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. It has gotten worse and worse and the stupid doctors just keep throwing more pills at her. Most of them make her drowsy, dizzy or sick, so she stops them, and we are all now very worried about the amount of prescription pain med she takes, but without those she can barely walk because of the pain. Lately she has been having severe hot flashes too. So Ive walked in on her crying in her room a couple of times. She sleeps most of the afternoons and she eats fast food and ice cream. She is also very sensitive to little things, she is often worried and anxious and has crazy mood swings. We were in the store the other day and she burst out with this desperate look on her face "We dont have enough money for this!" and I was surprised and embarrased, she never does things like that. She is often on the verge of tears over things, and I just dont know how to react.

I think she feels sort of defeated. She watched her mother's cancer come back three times and finally took her life, and I think she is scared. And I think she feels like it doesnt matter now if she eats healthy or exercises so she may as well get comfort from food or whatever... Im not really sure what shes thinking. All I know is that she is really bummed and to top it off her and dad are fighting about money and not planning their holidays anymore.

Im moving away for college in a few weeks (a few hours away). I am so worried about leaving her here, she is so depressed all the time.

What can I do??? Is there a great book I can buy her for her birthday next week that would inspire her? (She isnt much of a reader, though, and she might get offended and depressed again if I give her a self-help book for her birthday). What else can I do that would help?

Any ideas are appreciated. Im really overwhelmed and sad. I want to help her, but I dont know how.

Thanks a bunch :)
posted by osloheart to Human Relations (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think you need to tell her that you're worried about how anxious and depressed she is, and urge her to get some counseling. Is she in a support group for breast cancer survivors?
posted by desuetude at 7:48 PM on July 25, 2008

Look, I can't even begin to know what your mother is experiencing, but I am also dealing with cancer and I'll tell you a little of how I feel. It's tough to "be strong". I'm dealing with one of the most survivable cancers and will being having surgery in a couple of weeks. But as much of my anxiety comes from trying to be upbeat and 100% optimistic with my friends and family as it does from the disease itself. I feel guilty for making them worry, and feel bad for the help I will need from them over the next couple of months.

I can't imagine how I would handle coming through this disease, only to plunged head long into another one.

Wearing the mantel of "sick person" changes the way people treat you on every level. So what can be the most helpful thing is to just be treated normally, the way you were before people saw you as a "survivor". Is there some activity that you and your mom enjoyed before she got sick that wouldn't tax her too much? A favorite restaurant, or park, or movie that you could enjoy together? No talk about cancer, or doctors, or pestering her about what she is eating... just hanging out.

At the same time, know that she probably hates that she is causing you grief, and if you can just let her know that you love her and will be there for her no matter what, it will go along way.

My closest friends and family have helped me feel more normal by keeping it light. We've decided that mocking my cancer into remission is the best approach, and I can get behind that (including the "Bon Voyage, Tumor" party that's happening tomorrow). I don't expect that's the tact to take to your mom... but think about who she was before she got sick and see if you can bring aspects of that life back to her.
posted by kimdog at 7:59 PM on July 25, 2008

My own mom had a (very understandably) hard time after surgery for breast cancer and she's now in talk therapy every week. Prior to this, she wasn't a big fan of therapy, but she found a therapist that she really likes, who has given her tools for coping with the huge emotional issues. It has made such a huge difference in her quality of life. Seriously.

Best wishes to your mom and your whole family. I know how hard it can be to see your mom struggling and not know what to do.
posted by corey flood at 9:23 PM on July 25, 2008

She was in a support group for a little while, actually. She made a lot of good friends, and it helped her enormously. Now that I think about it, things started getting worse around the time she stopped going to the meetings. So Im definitely going to mention it, like "hey you should get back in touch with Cindy and see how she's doing" or "it might be nice to go back and talk about things with your friends there next week"....

See, I have tried to keep things light, because she is so sensitive and loses it easily when we start getting deep into conversation about it. We have always been like best friends, and we still regularly go out to lunch and to the beach, and have lots of laughs. Nobody is treating her like a "sick person", we are just concerned and everyone is trying to figure out what we can do to help without making her feel guilty about us worrying (because she totally does).

I am also thinking about setting up a program for her to do pilates, since it is a low impact exercise that we can do together before I leave, and she can continue until I come home at christmas. Im really into pilates, so its more like Im "sharing my interest" rather than pushing her to do it. Anyway she has expressed interest in it because it should help with her back pain, but she is having a hard time getting started so maybe this is a good idea.

Thank you :)
posted by osloheart at 9:49 PM on July 25, 2008

Given the hot flashes and the mood swings, is it possible your mother is going through menopause? If so, combined with cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, it would be enough to make anyone coop up in a room with some ice cream.

It's not uncommon for RA to surface or worsen after a severe emotional trauma. This has been my pattern. If this is the case for your mom, addressing her mood might be just as important as addressing her physical symptoms. That might be a way to approach it with her if she's resistant to therapy.

Therapy might help, if nothing else than to get her in the mindset of someone who is trying to get better. If a therapist agrees, antidepressants could help ease her out of her funk. I know you are worried about the amount of medication she's taking, but this sounds like the kind of thing where you might have to try everything for now. Lexapro is just one of the meds that can do wonders for the kind of anxiety and moodiness your mom seems to be experiencing.

If it's possible, taking a trip can help a lot - it's distracting and exciting, it's just the thing for jumpstarting out of a rut. Something involving a lot of physical activity can be great if she has the energy, the possibility of helping other people is even better. I know people who got a lot out of volunteering at an orphanage in Oaxaca. But it depends on her state of mind. If you have the kind of depression where you can barely bring yourself to stand up, traveling can be more of a burden than a help.

Can she still laugh? For me, laughing - hard - is one of the first steps to recovery out of depression. That means seeing really silly, funny movies, playing silly games (Balderdash? Twister?), going on rollercoasters, hanging out with friends who understand her situation and care about her. Take as much of the drudgery of daily chores out of her life as possible so she can put her energy into something else.

Does she have a dog? Most people should have a dog, especially people who are depressed. It's very hard not to smile and laugh around your dogs, and they get you out of the house and into the sunshine. If it's a rescue, there's the added psychic benefit of helping out a needy animal.

And visit her. Often. She will appreciate it.

Best of luck to you and your mom. Its a difficult situation, and you're lucky to have each other.
posted by walla at 10:06 PM on July 25, 2008

You are being a good person. Just realize it's normal for someone with a bad disease to feel depressed and anxious. Be there for her as much as you can. You can't make the disease go away, but you can be a good and loving offspring.

Good luck to you and to your mom.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 10:34 PM on July 25, 2008

I really appreciate everyone's advice, thank you.
posted by osloheart at 2:52 AM on July 26, 2008

If your mother was put on tamoxofen or one of several other post-cancer chemo drugs aimed at preventing a recurrence they are the likely cause of the hot flashes. The side effects of those drugs can be really tiresome because the hot flashes won't stop but will continue for as long as she's taking the drugs. I've known several people who were on them for more than 5 years and the effect on their lives was pretty negative but they didn't have a cancer recurrence.

My mother started menopause because of chemo for breast cancer and that's also not uncommon. It's tough - at a point where one's self image has been assaulted by the disease and its treatment to then have to face an additional debilitating illness AND menopause or hot flashes is a lot to bear.

I would agree with the others that if she's willing to rejoin a support group or look at therapy it might help. Yoga can help with both depression and perhaps with the rheumatoid arthritis as well. Maybe you and your father can set her up with a class? When I'm depressed it's very hard to find the initiative to set something like that up but the impetus of a class rather than working from a tape/disk might help her keep going and add some social contact as well. If she needs help to be set up to IM with you when you go off to school maybe make sure that happens - contact with you when you're away will help.

Best of luck to you both - cancer is a long, miserable haul.
posted by leslies at 5:26 AM on July 26, 2008

I am an 11+ year bc survivor and now work in oncology. It is a long difficult haul -- even with the best prognosis. The problem in coming off of active treatment is that many people feel at a loss as to what to do-- that grim waiting period of seeing if the beast returns. Terrible as it is -- it is normal. Experts suggest that it may take as long as 3 years after active treatment before one relaxes. For me, I waited 5 years to buy a new coat (which I certainly could have afforded at any time) because I didn't think I would be alive long enough to get my money's worth. I say this so that you know your mom's concerns and fears are part of the process.

Each person and the way they deal with cancer is different. Many folks have suggested joining a support group. If that is a comfortable setting for her -- that is a great idea. Great comfort and strength come from shared experiences. The Wellness Community provides excellent resources in selected cities as well as a virtual online support group for those in outlying areas or for those who prefer to be more anonymous. Gilda's Club is also a valid choice as are dozens of independently run support groups throughout the country. However, despite the anecdotes, joining a support group is not going to help her live longer -- however, if it is a good fit -- it may help her live better.

To me -- the most important thing that she can do is to get back into living. Get involved and doing the things that the loved doing before cancer -- do not let the diagnosis define her. Let it become a longterm chronic condition just like any other disease. I know, easier said than done.

Here is an article "The Gift of Cancer" that I wrote years ago that appears on many websites and in a number of cancer-related publications that she (and you) might find helpful.

Best of luck to you both.
posted by peace_love_hope at 8:06 AM on July 26, 2008

It sounds like there are a lot of things playing into your mom's emotions right now. Have you tried telling her that you're open to talking and/or listening? Sometimes people need really obvious permission to talk, especially if they already feel guilty about putting loved ones through stress. "Mom, it seems like you're going through some rough times right now. I don't want to make you talk about it, but I want you to know that I'm here for you if you want someone to listen" or even just "Life seems stressful for you lately, how are you doing?" might help open the door for her to talk to you about what she's going through.

I don't know much about the pain issues or RA she's dealing with, but I know there are a LOT of resources out there for cancer survivors who are dealing with the fear of recurrence, because it's such a universal feeling. Googling for "fear of cancer recurrence" turns up lots of information that you might be able to point her to. The American Cancer Society has a good article about it, and offers some specific suggestions for how to manage the fear.

A lot of times when somebody around here asks for help with feelings of sadness or depression or stuck-ness, they get the great advice to try volunteering. As natural as it seems to focus on yourself when you're going through a rough patch, sometimes the best way to get over your own problems is to help other people deal with theirs. Perhaps your mom could get involved with an organization like 4th Angel, which sets survivors up with newly diagnosed cancer patients to give them a "mentor" who has been through a similar situation. The organization provides training for mentors, and I've heard all kinds of good things about the program. You or your mom would have to gauge whether she'd be interested in that kind of thing at this point, but the opportunity to help others seems to be a really helpful silver lining for some survivors.

Finally, check with local hospitals to see if they have any resources for you and/or your mom. I volunteer in a really well-stocked cancer resource library at a local hospital, and I'm amazed by how under-utilized it is. We have books, dvds, audio programs, magazines, and more informational brochures than you can shake a stick at, not to mention flyers for scores of local support groups and resources. I bet any major cancer-treatment hospital in your area would have similar resources available, both for your mom as a survivor and for you as a family member trying to help her through this.

Good luck to you, your mom, and your whole family.
posted by vytae at 8:36 PM on July 27, 2008

Pl. request your mom to see this video in youtube.

It has impacted a lot of people.

Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams

Randy is one of the most influential people in Time 2008 list.
posted by tom123 at 9:30 PM on August 2, 2008

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