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Treating Cancer:
Mentally, Physically, Emotionally

Cancer—a dreaded disease when active or in remission—is a presence in three of every eleven American households, notes Raleigh Psychiatrist Dr. Mona Gupta, “and the consequences of that fact manifest in many different ways.

Dr. Gupta

“On the other side of treatment, a common belief may be present: ‘Oh she is all better, they’ve cleared up the cancer and she is in remission.’ But it is often at this very point when significant psychological symptoms for the cancer patient may intensify.”

The recovering patient, Dr. Gupta explains, “may have the new challenge of dealing with anxiety and depression. When in the cancer treatment mode, the patient typically moves in sort of lock-step through the regimen—focused on ‘doing’ what needs to be done. So the aftermath can, in fact, be more difficult than the active treatment phase. For most cancer patients at this point in their treatment, they are dealing with the issue of their own mortality in ways they never have before. For many patients, this is an especially challenging time.

“We have a number of oncologists who refer to us, and while they may, short-term, feel comfortable prescribing an anti-depressant medication for their patients, they most often prefer that their patients receive ongoing psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy from a specialist.”

A Dual Approach

“And when you’re dealing with cancer,” emphasizes Dr. Gupta, “whether active or aftermath, you need to consider both psycho- and pharmacotherapy. Medications help, but I find that you actually need to come to grips with a whole range of issues.

“And therapeutically, we need to look at the whole picture,” she says. “Often the patient feels they need to be strong for everyone, and that mindset becomes a challenge, as well. I have a number of patients who fit into this category, and so I counsel them: ‘It’s OK to feel sad. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to be with your feelings, and we’ll do this healing work together.’”

Her Background

In all parts of her life, personally and professionally, Dr. Gupta focuses her training, talent, and energy on promoting mental, physical, and emotional health—for herself, for her family, and for her many clients.

A doctor of osteopathic medicine, she is a board-certified psychiatrist who guides scores of people—ages eighteen and above—to more peaceful and productive lives.

“It’s true that I tend to approach my clients in a more intuitive and holistic way,” she observes, “considering and adjusting to such lifestyle issues as diet, exercise, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation techniques to ease anxiety, such as yoga. It is, I think, fair to say that I work with my clients to attain, regain and maintain healthy balance in mind, body, and spirit.

“Medications can get my clients just so far—perhaps 60 percent along the road to healthy functioning—but there is so much each client can do on their own. I always tell my clients if they want to work on their emotional health—their sadness, their depression—they have to invest the time and energy to get the results they want, and they need to understand and care about the relationship between their physical bodies and their emotional and mental health.

“I also tell my clients that it takes time, energy, and commitment to move from emotional pain to emotional health. To a large extent, I serve as a coach and a navigator along this journey to balance and good health. Together we can explore the fact that there’s normal anxiety in response to many life events, and then there is anxiety that is pathological where we can intervene in creative and effective ways.”

The Power of Labels

Often, Dr. Gupta points out, “people get labels—they are ‘cancer survivors,’ for example—and subsequently every life event, major or minor, is attributed to the label they bear. When considering a life event, they may conclude ‘That occurred because of my bout with cancer,’ or ‘that must be a result of my depression.’ And I coax them back to a healthier reality: ‘You are experiencing a series of life events  . . . you do get sad and you do get angry as the result of certain life events. And in fact, these emotional responses may be and often are perfectly normal responses to many situations.’”

And this reminder is important Dr. Gupta explains, “because what often happens is that when a client gets a label, they no longer believe that any feeling they are experiencing is normal. Rather, the feeling needs to be treated, to be medicated. My goal is to educate my clients to understand that not every single emotion deserves or requires a medicated response. Together, my clients and I need to determine what thoughts and behaviors are normal or abnormal and proceed with our healing journey accordingly.

A Personal Approach to Therapy

“In the past,” she notes, “psychiatry as a discipline was quite Freudian. Our teachers would say that it was important for therapists to keep their emotional distance from a client, and not share personal information about themselves. In fact, I am very different in my approach to my clients, and have been since my earliest days in training. And I’ve come to believe that my clients actually like the fact that I’m a real person, sharing life’s mysteries and challenges with them.

“My message is often very simple: ‘Listen, I truly understand your pain. I’m here with you. Let’s try to navigate this life event together.’ My clients typically appreciate this approach because they recognize that it is sincere.
“And that is true beyond the support needs of the client,” says Dr. Gupta. “There is the need to educate the family or caretakers about the patient’s full range of needs. You spend time with them and quickly realize that they are truly sick—and quite often, their family is devastated by this life event. Often, the patient simply is unaware of the severity of their condition. They are functioning in their own distant realm of reality.

“I’ve walked the path with many patients who are dealing with the challenges of cancer, encouraging them to constantly send positive, healing messages to their cells in many different ways: how they eat and sleep and use their life-supporting energy.”