Cancer. That word is a powerful one. It has the power to spark fear, often taking our thoughts straight to the worst-case scenario: death. Yet for a word that carries so much weight it is still seen as taboo, a topic to avoid talking about, when in reality it’s something that we have all been in contact with, whether it’s us directly receiving a diagnosis or a family member, friend or work colleague. Statistics from Cancer Research show that every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer.
When faced with diagnosis a million things go through a person’s head, and the road ahead can seem terrifying. Often people face feelings of shame, fear of being judged for their choice of lifestyle, or the worry of hurting those around them. This can lead to people withdrawing from friends and loved ones.
Mental health after a cancer diagnosis
Naturally, with everything else to think about, mental health isn’t often in the forefront of people’s minds. People tend to focus on the physical challenges immediately in front of them, and that is often treatment such as chemo or radiotherapy. Time is spent at various appointments, visiting doctors and nurses, and being given a lot of information. All available energy is spent just getting through the day.
However, the mind has an important impact on physical health and focusing on mental health is also important at this time. Making time for reflecting on mental health and talking about thoughts can help process complex emotions that cancer has brought up. When going through treatment, it can feel like lots of things are taken out of your hands and you can feel helpless, depressed and anxious. Talking about your cancer diagnosis can help you understand your feelings, help you make decisions, and feel more in control.
Dealing with post-treatment emotions
Many people assume that once they have finished their cancer treatment, are in remission, and deemed to be ‘living with cancer’, they should be feeling content, happy even. Often this is not the case. All the appointments suddenly stop, and the attention goes away. Friends inevitably stop asking ‘How are you?’ and people expect a person to ‘get back to normal’. The idea of what a new ‘normal’ means is often overlooked and planning for life after treatment is something individuals often haven’t considered. People can be left feeling isolated and lonely and data from Macmillan shows that less than a third of people living with cancer talk about their mental health issues.
Dealing with life post-treatment can raise mixed emotions, and people can feel guilty for not feeling amazing. People assume that they should feel lucky to be alive and shouldn’t feel low. Some people think they shouldn’t cause a fuss and don’t want to burden their friends and loved ones with their low mood. At times family members can be unsure of how to approach the subject, for fear of opening up something painful, when it can often be exactly what that person needs. Also, I have worked with clients who have felt guilt for saying that cancer has made their lives better as it has forced them to reevaluate their situation.
Another common issue people face post-treatment is an accompanying health anxiety. People can feel betrayed by their bodies and every little twinge can bring with it intense anxiety and fear of death. Yearly check-ups can be triggers for people, taking them back to the intensity of their cancer treatment.
Coping with fear
Counselling can help people to rebuild trust with their body and help them see that its only natural to be fearful of cancer returning. Through therapy, we can begin to understand and accept this fear, and can help minimise its power to terrify. Often going through something as huge as cancer can bring up other life concerns. I work with clients who uncover other issues they had not realised they needed to process, allowing them to open up about things that have been brought to the forefront due to their diagnosis.
How does talking about cancer help?
Talking therapy can help people understand what their life looks like when living with cancer and build up their self-esteem. I work with clients to process their experience and get them to understand that the range of emotions they are feeling is okay and normal. Through working together, clients often realise that it’s okay to open up to their family and friends, which enables them to access the support network around them. Not only does talking openly about cancer benefit individuals, it benefits society, as the more we talk about mental health in relation to cancer, the less taboo talking about it will be.