Why mental health therapy for cancer is a good idea after a cancer diagnosis.
When the topic of breast cancer comes up, many people will think of friends and family members who have been previously diagnosed; others will think of pink ribbons and the “sea of pink” that is everywhere in October. The goal of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is to raise awareness and funds for research. It is also a way to show support for current cancer patients and survivors. Breast Cancer Awareness Month does put breast cancer front and center; however, there is much that is not discussed. One subject matter that does not get a lot of attention is the mental health aspect of being diagnosed and living with breast cancer. A breast cancer diagnosis can cause anxiety, depression, distress and PTSD.
Medically, we have done a better job of treating breast cancer. More and more women are getting annual mammograms and early detection does save lives. According to the American Cancer Society, there is a 90% 5-year survival rate when averaging together all stages of breast cancer. Statistically, people are now surviving breast cancer at higher rates compared to the past. However, as cancer treatments have improved, we are not meeting the emotional and mental health needs of the cancer survivors.
Hearing the words, “You have cancer”, is life changing. I know this from working with many cancer patients as well as from personal experience. I am a 2x time breast cancer survivor. I was diagnosed at age 25 and again at age 30. Both times, I was diagnosed with the aggressive Triple Negative Breast Cancer. My first cancer diagnosis felt surreal. I had just turned 25. I was a nonsmoker, a nondrinker, a vegan, and I worked out intensely. The second time I was diagnosed, I discovered I was BRCA1+ (genetic mutation). I was once again surprised, as I did not have a family history that would indicate a genetic mutation. There were not generations of women being diagnosed with breast cancer and ovarian cancer in my family. There are so many emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis such as shock, anger, hopelessness, and fear. There is also a lot of grief that comes with a cancer diagnosis some of which is recognized by family and friends and some of which is not really acknowledged by society. Oncologists want to rid the body of cancer. They treat the side effects from cancer treatments such as anemia, nausea, and infections. Who is treating the emotional impact from cancer? Counseling for cancer patients should be as normalized as radiation and chemotherapy.
There are many cancer stressors that breast cancer survivors face. Cancer stressors can often lead to a decline in mental health. Some of the cancer stressors include:
Loss of Femininity with Breast Cancer Survivors
Men can be diagnosed with breast cancer. Men have a 1 in 883 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. However, breast cancer is more common in females, as 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer over their lifetime. Past research on breast cancer survivors indicate many women who have had mastectomies struggle with feeling feminine and sexually attractive after their mastectomy. Grief and loss is a natural emotion after a mastectomy as breasts represent womanhood and motherhood to many women. Hair loss is also common in chemotherapy treatment, and it is devastating for many women. One’s physical appearance can change drastically over breast cancer treatment, besides hair loss, eyebrow and eyelash loss can happen. Weight gain is common, especially with women with hormone positive cancers. Self esteem can be at an all time low for many women going through cancer treatments.
Fertility is a common concern of childbearing breast cancer survivors as some cancer treatments impair fertility. Fertility preservation procedures can be very costly and many women in breast cancer treatment can not financially afford to do so. Often, there is no chance to save the money as cancer treatment takes priority and should begin as soon as possible. The hope of becoming a mother or being able to have multiple children can be taken away with cancer treatment.
Financial Stress is a common stressor for all cancer patients (as well as anyone in America who experiences medical issues). There are insurance deductibles (if the patient has health insurance) as well as “out of pocket” costs for treatment and items not covered by insurance plans. There are lost days of work and extra expenses that might come up…Uber (with many medical procedures you cannot drive yourself home), housekeeping and lawn care costs if you are too ill to do this for yourself, and carryout when you are too tired to cook. For some, the extra expenses can lead to bankruptcy. Medical expenses are a common cause of bankruptcy in America.
Fear of Recurrence
No one really expects a cancer diagnosis, and after being diagnosed, you have a general mistrust of your body. It is easy to believe that every headache is a brain tumor, a muscle ache is bone cancer, and a cough is lung cancer. Over time, it becomes easier, but shortly after treatment, a headache can cause an anxiety attack due to fear of recurrence.
There are so many benefits to seeking mental health therapy when going through cancer treatment. I have found that many cancer survivors like to appear to be happy 24/7 as they feel they should just be grateful to be alive. Some struggle with having negative thoughts because they survived cancer and every day should be blissful (this is not the reality, trust me). Many cancer survivors feel their “safety net” has been taken at the end of their cancer treatment and this is scary. It is also easy to push through cancer treatment and not think about the emotional impact the diagnosis has until after treatment has ended. Intense emotions then arise, and it becomes easy to feel stuck. Therapy for cancer patients can help survivors feel more in control and empowered. Positive coping skills will be discussed. Realistic goals can be set, and the impact of cancer will be discussed and processed. Traditional talk therapy and/or EMDR therapy can be useful in working with cancer patients. I get what it feels like to be betrayed by your body and having your life derailed by cancer. I believe that mental health therapy for cancer should be just as common as chemotherapy. With cancer, it is important to treat the whole person, not just the medical symptoms. As cancer rates are predicted to increase, there is much improvement that can be made in the mental health treatment of cancer patients.