5 Tips for Boosting Mental Health During Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Treatment

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Studies have shown that people living with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) are more prone to emotional upset than people living with other types of cancer. The reason is thought to be a combination of having a life-long condition without a cure and the uncertainty of alternating periods of treatment and non-treatment. If you’re living with CLL and experiencing bouts of anger, depression, or anxiety, there are many ways to find relief. Treatment for CLL is highly personalized and should include an effective mental health component.  

1. Feel your feelings–and learn how to process them with a professional.

Undergoing CLL treatment can bring about a plethora of emotions, from worry to fear to anger to sadness and more. And they’re all normal. It’s important to allow yourself to feel all these emotions, because ignoring them can cause greater problems down the line. Talking to a mental health professional like a psychiatrist or psychotherapist can give you tools to work through everything you’re feeling. Does your CLL make you angry? You’re absolutely allowed. Anger is the brain’s natural response to something it perceives as threatening. However, if you aren’t working through your anger in a productive way, you may find yourself taking it out on the people around you or bottling it up to the point where you’re anxious and on edge. It can help to walk away from a conversation or situation for a few minutes or talk through your feelings with a trusted listener like a therapist or loved one at a later time. In addition to anger, you may feel overwhelming sadness and grief over not living the life you thought you would. This too is natural. Although grief is different for everyone, you don’t have to carry it on your own. Working with a professional can help you find strategies to address your anger and sadness in the moment and use coping skills to stay present and mindful.

2. Find social support.

Many people living with CLL feel lonely. It can be hard for friends and family to understand what you’re going through. Joining an online or in-person support group can connect you with people who know where you’re coming from and make it easier to share your real feelings. And try to accept help from loved ones when it’s offered. They’ll feel gratified to be able to make your life easier in any way they can, whether it’s helping with cooking or cleaning, running errands, or any other thing that they can take off your plate.

3. Practice stress reduction techniques.

With CLL comes a lot of stress and anxiety. You may have waited to treat your CLL until symptoms presented themselves, and now you’re shifting into a new phase of your life with this condition. You may be stressed about your treatment plan, your future, your finances, and more. Living with CLL isn’t easy. But it’s crucial to learn ways to lower your stress levels. Research shows stress can make CLL worse–but the good news is, there’s a lot you can do to find moments of calm.  Look at your CLL as a free pass to put yourself first and make self-care a priority. Talk with your doctor or mental health professional about any of these stress-busting activities that appeal to you:

  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Hypnosis
  • Mindfulness techniques

4. Prioritize physical activity.

Exercise has been shown to improve mood and ease depression and anxiety for people living with CLL. What’s more, it can help you reduce cancer-related fatigue and even sleep better at night. Researchers have found moderate aerobic activity, vigorous aerobic activity, and resistance training all to be safe and beneficial for people with cancer, even during treatment.

  • Moderate aerobic activity: Brisk walking, bike riding
  • Vigorous aerobic activity: Running, swimming, tennis
  • Resistance training: exercise with weights or resistance bands

Aim for a couple of hours of moderate aerobic activity or a little over an hour of vigorous aerobic activity each week, plus some resistance training. Don’t feel like you need to knock it all out in one session. You can work toward your weekly goal a day at a time. Talk with your doctor before you begin a new exercise routine to make sure the specifics are safe for you. If you’re interested in group classes, be sure to mention that, too. Your doctor can assess whether your immune system is strong enough to exercise in a group setting without greater risk of infection.  

5. Don’t ignore deeper problems.

People living with CLL have a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety than those who aren’t. These serious mental health conditions are characterized by more extreme, lasting emotions. It’s hard to control them, and they have a significant impact on your quality of life and relationships. Talk with your doctor if you have symptoms of depression or anxiety. Ask for a referral to a mental health professional. Many effective treatments can be incorporated into your healthcare plan, and it’s important to recognize the signs so you can get help as early as possible.

Keep an eye out for these symptoms of depression, especially if they last weeks or months:

  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or numb
  • Low motivation and loss of interest
  • Persistent negative thoughts
  • Withdrawal or isolation

And don’t ignore these symptoms of anxiety, either:

If you’re experiencing any of these, reach out to your healthcare team. They’re responsible for taking care of your whole self–physically and emotionally. They can refer you to a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, or counselor who can help you process your emotions and get the support you need. Remember, the aim of your CLL treatment plan is to treat you, not just your CLL. Bring your mental health into the ongoing conversation.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Nov 9
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Anxiety. ASCO. https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/managing-emotions/anxiety
  2. Living Well with Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). Leukemia Care. https://media.leukaemiacare.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/LIVING-WELL-WITH-CLL-v5-WBLEED.pdf
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  4. How much physical activity do adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm
  5. Depression. ASCO. https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/managing-emotions/depression