The following gem appeared in my email inbox this week: this highly knowledgeable doctor from a very prestigious US medical school “encourages the return to ‘normal life’ or a ‘new normal’ following breast cancer.”
I think we can all read into the subtext of this quote: the good doctor wants patients to “get over it,” with the “it” being cancer. Also, the physician can help us survivors of this horrible disease live a “normal life” by helping us to cope after cancer treatment.
Trying to help survivors only after their treatment is like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Don’t get me wrong: of course, patients should get psychosocial and medical support after their treatments, but what about helping patients — I’m thinking psychological/emotional issues here in particular — before and during treatment?
And I must say, the word “normal” is — and always has been — meaningless. There is no normal. This is especially true in the cancer realm.
Instead, cancer patients face different shades of abnormal. In fact, now that I think about it, if there’s no normal, is there really an abnormal?
Our medical system is broken: more than ever, doctors try to treat the whole patient, but their efforts fall short. My oncologist is wonderful and cares about my quality of life. But when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, his concern, understandably, was to treat the cancer aggressively. He did his best to comfort me, as did the nurse who hugged and rocked me gently while I wept like a baby in her arms. As did my oncology nurse who helped me during the cancer trauma by convincing me to continue my chemotherapy regimen.
These medical staff always try their best to help patients, but other than referring me to support groups, which sucked for me (click here to find out about one of the shittiest support groups ever), there was no effort to nudge me to find a social worker, psychotherapist, or other mental health professional. The entire focus was on killing cancer cells.
Ultimately, I paid a heavy price. After treatment, my mental health — deteriorating throughout treatments — eroded, and I have had to see psychotherapists (I eventually did fire one; more on her in another post) and a psychiatrist for medication to control the severe depression and anxiety I constantly experienced post-treatment. The PTSD flashbacks and up-all-nighters holed up in my bed have been no joy ride, but with the help of mental health professionals, I am living a stable, fulfilling life.
I know I’m taking a risk by writing this post; mental disorders have a stigma attached to them. I might be judged and written off as “crazy.” But the truth is, cancer can never return someone to a “new normal” state. What was unleashed on me years ago were abnormal cells. And 17 years later, I’m lucky and grateful to be alive, but I still have this trauma etched deeply in my psyche.
My mind is forever altered.
And it’s not because I’m experiencing a “new normal.”
Every day is a struggle.
I hate that I have to work so hard on my mental health.
But one of my greatest strengths is persistence, and I will never give up on me.
Interestingly, also this week, an article from Nursing Times appeared on my Facebook news feed. The article asserts that most women in England with breast cancer have not been told about possible post-treatment anxiety and depression: “The landmark survey of nearly 3,000 women with breast cancer in England, carried out on behalf of Breast Cancer Care, found 33% experienced anxiety for the first time in their lives after their diagnosis and treatment.”
Samia al Qadhi, chief executive of Breast Cancer Care, one of the charities that conducted the study, said, “‘Damaged body image, anxieties about the cancer returning and debilitating long-term side effects can disrupt identities and shatter confidence, leaving people feeling incredibly lonely, and at odds with friends, family and the outside world.’” To read the entire article, click here.
The survey results might seem alarming, but they don’t surprise me.
The US is also abysmal in helping the mental health of those with breast cancer or who have had breast cancer.
Doctors must understandably focus on treating the disease, but I wish they didn’t do so at the expense of sacrificing the person who has the disease.
This October, instead of a conversation on the heroic, brave breast cancer survivor-warrior archetype, I would like the conversations to veer toward research for a cure one day, as well as to those of us who find ourselves mentally and physically incapacitated by cancer and its treatment effects.
Pinktober will be filled with insensitive, often-crass promotions and cause marketing, and we survivors will be expected to put on a happy face. But what patients like me care about is to be physically and mentally healthy.
How has cancer diagnosis and treatment affected you psychologically and/or physically? I am eager to hear from you on this matter.
Tags: breast cancer, cancer, cancer and mental health, cancer and trauma, cancer treatment, the new normal