The Cancer and Mental Health Equation

You might have noticed October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Perhaps you’re all too aware of the fact it’s breast cancer awareness month, because every month feels that way to you. You, like me, might have very mixed feelings about breast cancer awareness month. But before the calendar page flipped and turned from September to October, my pals at Breast Cancer Care launched an incredibly important campaign.

Because the thing is, they do this stuff all year round. They advocate for patients 365 days a year, like so many other amazing charities do. But this caught really caught my attention because it focused on the mental health impact a breast cancer diagnosis can have on a patient. It’s a report that explores the way people feel after going through 10 months, or more, of relentless treatment that strips you of your wellbeing, your fitness, your identity. Because that’s the thing. Breast cancer goes well beyond the tumour that grows in your breast. You know all this because of how much I talk about it – but this campaign from Breast Cancer Care, in partnership with Mind, goes to show just how far reaching these issues are and that I’m far from alone in this.

Over 8 in ten (84%) women with breast cancer in England are not told about the possibility of developing long-term anxiety and depression as a result of their diagnosis.

The research also reveals that 33% of the 3000 women surveyed experienced anxiety for the first time in their lives after their diagnosis and treatment, while almost half (45%) experience continuous fear that the cancer may return, which can severely impact day-to-day life. These figures aren’t really a surprise to me, but it’s pretty sobering to see them written down in black and white. That so many people live in fear or with heightened anxieties as a result of their cancer diagnosis probes that the support patients receive needs to continue long after being told they don’t need to come back to the hospital until their annual check up.

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Samia al Qadhi, CEO of Breast Cancer Care explained “We know people expect to feel better when they finish treatment and can be utterly devastated and demoralised to find it the hardest part. And though the NHS is severely overstretched, it’s crucial people have a conversation about their mental health at the end of treatment so they can get the support they need, at the right time.”

The body- mind connection is undeniable. The two are inextricably linked, and when one is put under pressure, the other naturally struggles too. Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, says:

“It’s understandable that being diagnosed with or treated for something as serious as breast cancer will impact someone’s mental wellbeing, even if they have never experienced a mental health problem before”.

And it is totally understandable. I spoke to a CBT practitioner at a festival a few months ago and she compared cancer treatment to falling off a cliff edge. You have hit every single branch on the way down and found yourself at the bottom of the cliff, battered, bruised, broken and completely dazed having fallen several hundred feet. But then someone comes to you and says “yeah – but you’re alive, time to get on with it!” but life doesn’t work that way. Because you can’t fall that far, hit the ground that hard and not need some time to process it.

I think the call for support from these two charities is absolutely crucial – but more pertinent to me is the reminder that those who do find it difficult to restart life after cancer, aren’t alone. There are many more of us who struggle beyond treatment than the world would have us believe.

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There’s another thing that I think we don’t really talk about enough – and that’s those people who have a history of mental health issues and are then diagnosed with cancer (and I talk about cancer here because this is what I know, but I feel the same about any illness). What about those people? How are they coping? I mean, I obviously ask this because I am one of these people, but while the conversation around mental health and cancer is unfolding, it’s important to ascertain this too. It’s important not to ignore this crucial part of the discussion. And that’s why I wanted to write my book.

We are getting so much better at talking about mental health but we’re still missing out huge chunks of the conversation – we don’t talk about the nuances of bipolar disease or about those who live with psychosis, even though we can talk openly about our experiences of depression. And we can talk until the cows come home about the impact cancer has on your mental health after the fact, but what about if you were already struggling to tread the tightrope before the diagnosis? Does that impact survival? Does that impact the severity of the mental damage that occurs afterwards?

The truth is, unsurprisingly, I don’t know the answers to these questions, nor how to direct the conversation around the less “fashionable”* side of mental health because I am only one person and only know the experiences of this one person well enough to examine. But I suspect there are different challenges faced by those who have already got health challenges to contend with.

1 in 2 people will get cancer in their life time. 1 in 4 people will suffer with mental health issues in their life time. There is almost certainly a cross section of these people who need to know they are supported. They need access to treatments that can help them put the pieces of their life back together after this, or any other serious illness bombards their lives. And this campaign from Breast Cancer Care is a start. A brilliant start to a conversation that could potentially change and save lives.

“With this book though, the thing you are actually holding in your hands, I wanted to let people know they are not alone. I wanted to offer Albus Dumbledore’s light in the dark. Not necessarily to insist things will get better, because I know that’s not necessarily what you want to hear – but to remind people that the human race knows a thing or two about both suffering and survival. I feel like with that in mind, it’s more difficult to feel totally isolated in your struggles – whether they’re related to mental health or cancer, or something completely different. Someone has been where you are right now. And while that doesn’t make your shitty situation (shituation, some may say) any less shitty, it suggests that survival is possible. Even if it’s just surviving one day at a time. One moment at a time. You’ve made it through every single one of your bad days until now – you can take whatever life throws at you. We are surviving even when we are just living through today and that is enough.”

Life, Lemons and Melons – Foreword

*this is a flippant use of this word. I hope you know I don’t think any mental health is “fashionable” but some is more socially acceptable to chat about than others

** If you’d like to pre-order Life, Lemons and Melons, you can do so right here. The first stage of edits is complete.

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