Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) is a type of cancer that starts in the walls of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or the organs that digest food and remove wastes from your body.
It’s common for people who are diagnosed with cancer to feel sad or afraid. GIST also causes pain and other uncomfortable symptoms that can affect quality of life. And any serious chronic condition can increase the risk for a mental health disorder.
Getting the right support for GIST symptoms can help you feel better during treatment and feel less alone.
Studies in people with various types of cancer suggests that those who receive mental health support have better outcomes and possibly even improved survival rates.
Read on to learn about the kinds of support available to you if you’re living with a GIST.
Many people have strong emotions after a cancer diagnosis. Feelings of depression and anxiety are common. The pain from a GIST, especially if it’s not well controlled, can intensify these emotions.
Chronic pain can affect your daily life. When your belly hurts, you may not be able to eat what you want or to do the things you enjoy.
Uncertainty is another common feeling people experience when they have cancer. Even though people today live longer with GIST, it’s natural to worry that your cancer will come back after treatment or that it will spread.
Although treatment improves survival, it has some downsides. For example, the medicine imatinib (Gleevec) causes fatigue and other side effects that can make you feel down.
Research from 2019 has found that nearly
This anxiety disorder can develop in people who’ve experienced a frightening or life threatening situation, such as cancer diagnosis and treatment.
PTSD can cause serious and sometimes debilitating symptoms that can affect your ability to function in daily life, such as:
- nightmares or trouble sleeping
- frightening or unwanted thoughts
- feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or shame
- avoidance of potential triggers, such as places or people
If you’ve been feeling anxious or upset, mental health experts can help.
Psychosocial support addresses the emotional effects of living with cancer. You can get counseling one-on-one, in a group, or with your partner or other family members.
A few types of mental health professionals treat people with cancer:
- Psychiatrists: have a medical degree (MD) and can prescribe antidepressants and other medications
- Psychologists: have an advanced degree (PhD) and can offer talk therapy but can’t prescribe medications
- Social workers: offer support and advice to help you cope with your diagnosis
- Psychiatric clinical nurse specialists: treat mental health conditions with therapy and medication
- Licensed counselors: provide assessments and develop treatment plans
When choosing one of these mental health professionals, think about the type of care that would be best for you.
Get recommendations from the cancer team who treats you.
Once you have the names of a few providers, call and talk with each one or schedule a meeting. Ask what type of experience they have and if they’ve worked with people who have cancer.
Support groups are places to connect with other people who have GIST or other types of cancer. In these groups you can share your experiences, ask for advice, and learn how others have coped with their cancer.
You’ll find support groups in cancer hospitals, community centers, and churches. An oncology social worker or other experienced professional usually leads the group.
To find a GIST support group in your area, visit:
Therapy and counseling might be enough to relieve your symptoms.
If not, you may need medication. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications help relieve feelings of depression and anxiety from cancer.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a group of commonly prescribed antidepressants. Benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam (Klonopin), help with anxiety.
A psychiatrist or clinical nurse specialist prescribes these medications. Your provider will monitor you during treatment to make sure the medication is helping you and that you’re on the correct dose.
Both of these medications can cause dependence. This means it may be difficult to stop treatment after even a few weeks.
Benzodiazepines in particular have been linked to:
- physical dependence
Talk with your doctor about these and other potential risks before starting any new medication.
Counseling and support groups are also available online. They offer many of the same features as in-person support groups, including a moderator.
Online support may be a good option if you don’t feel well enough to attend sessions in person or if it’s hard for you to get to an in-person location.
You can find online support groups through:
These online communities are places where you can share updates about your cancer and ask for help from friends and family:
The benefits of in-person support groups for people with cancer are well established. Researchers don’t yet know whether online support groups are as helpful.
Some groups can actually harm you by sharing false information about cancer or its treatments.
If you do want to try an online support group, ask the doctor who treats your cancer for a recommendation. Or find one through a respected organization such as the American Cancer Society.
Medication and therapy aren’t the only ways to treat mental health issues related to cancer. Complementary and alternative practices might also help you feel better.
These may include:
Research from 2017in people with breast cancer found that yoga is helpful for reducing anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
- Mindfulness. Some evidence in a
2019 research reviewsuggests mindfulness techniques like meditation may improve pain severity, anxiety, stress, depression, and quality of life in people with cancer.
- Acupuncture. According to another
2019 review, studies suggest that acupuncture or acupressure may be useful for relieving pain in cancer patients.
Exercise is another important aspect of cancer treatment. It might help reduce the risk of depression and anxiety and improve sleep.
For some cancers, there’s early evidence that exercise improves survival, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
The best exercise program for cancer incorporates:
- cardiovascular exercises (like walking or swimming)
- strength training
- balance exercises
- flexibility training
Mental healthcare can be expensive. Many therapists charge $100 or more per hour. Therapy may be out of reach if you don’t have good health insurance coverage or if your provider doesn’t take insurance.
Always be sure to ask your therapist’s office if they accept your insurance. It’s also a good idea to call your insurer to understand:
- what conditions they cover
- how much you’ll have to pay out of pocket before your deductible kicks in
- how much copay you’ll owe at each visit
For more affordable treatment, try these tips:
- Ask your therapist if they offer treatment on a sliding scale to patients with lower incomes. If they don’t, ask if they can refer you to another mental health professional who does.
- Visit a federally funded health center, which will let you pay what you can afford. You can find these centers at HRSA.gov.
- Call the graduate psychology department of a local college or university. Some schools offer low cost counseling sessions to the public as part of the training for their students.
- Ask if your employer has an employee assistance program, which should offer a limited number of free counseling sessions.
- If your care needs are urgent, call a crisis care center in your community. They can help connect you to affordable mental health services.
If you’re having a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s toll-free hotline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).
It’s important to always work with a trained and licensed mental healthcare professional. You can check your counselor’s accreditation through an online registry, such as the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.
Living with cancer can be very stressful. It’s natural to be anxious or depressed, but help is available.
Psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals can provide psychotherapy and medication. A support group can give you advice on how to cope with your cancer.
If you need help, reach out to the resources available online and in your community.