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Cancer, Depression & the Fear Factor

Did you know May is Mental Health Month?

If you didn’t, you’re not alone. I didn’t know until my friend Marie, from Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, pointed it out to me by asking me to join her (and the many others) in writing a blog post on this topic to share today on Mental Health Blog Party Day.

I know, I’m not crazy about that blog party title either, but bear with me…

It’s really no surprise that most people are completely unaware of this particular designation for the month of May. There seem to be a lot of awareness campaigns going on each and every month.

Who can keep track anymore?

Mental Health Month needs recogntion because mental health issues need much more discussion.

Mental health and mental illness continue to be neglected topics.

A dark cloud certainly still hovers over the topic of mental illness. People too often remain silent about it. Families continue to keep secrets.

People are still afraid.

Like so often, once again it seems to come back to fear.

But what exactly are we so afraid of?

Most of us don’t hesitate to seek help when our bodies are suffering, but it’s quite another matter when our emotional well-being is off kilter for whatever reason. People still hesitate to talk about their mental health status. People still hesitate to admit needing help when they cannot cope or don’t feel emotionally strong enough to handle things. People still hesitate to seek out that help. And sadly, people still suffer in silence, often needlessly feeling alone and ashamed.

Yes, we give lip service to the importance of the mind/body connection, but yet many of us do not whole-heartedly embrace this truth.

If we did, the stigma for seeking help regarding our mental health would not be so great.

We have come a long way, but there is a great deal more work to be done.

Some of this work needs to be done in the field of cancer care. This is what I would specifically like to address a bit further.

A cancer diagnosis has a profound impact on one’s mind as well as one’s body. I believe the mind is perhaps even more profoundly impacted than the body. The physical scars do indeed run very deep, but the “scars of the mind” are possibly etched in even deeper.

As we’ve all heard many times before, physical scars heal faster than emotional scars. And cancer can leave some pretty nasty emotional scars.

The emotional well-being of the cancer patient seems to be one facet of cancer care that has been neglected. It’s true, this is beginning to change, but it’s not changing nearly fast enough.

Statistically, a high number of cancer patients suffer from depression at some point following a diagnosis, sometimes even many years later.

And once formal treatment ends, one is expected to be finished with cancer. One is expected to tuck it away (where exactly are we supposed to tuck it anyway?) and get on with things.

This isn’t quite so simple for a whole host of reasons, too many to list here.

When formal treatment ends, very few cancer patients are given any type of “survival plan.” I sure wasn’t. Yes, there are follow-up appointments for a designated amount of time with an oncologist, but often that’s it.

Most patients are simply sent on their way. It’s implied one should just get back out there and figure out your “new normal.”

Most of us muddle through and do exactly this, or at least we try to. Most people can muddle through and get by on their own, but some cannot.

What happens to them?

I was never really asked about my mental health during cancer treatment and certainly not when it ended. Oh sure, I was often asked, how are you doing, Nancy?

But that was about it.

I never felt as if the “door had been opened up wide enough” for me to actually “walk through it” and explain how I was truly feeling and coping.

So I didn’t explain.

Not addressing the emotional well-being of the cancer patient is neglecting a crucial piece of treatment, in my opinion. I believe all cancer patients should meet at least once with a mental health professional. More times would be even better.

I also believe cancer survivorship should be an important phase of cancer treatment.

We are all fragile human beings and we know it.

Perhaps this is why we are so hesitant. Perhaps this is why we remain fearful.

We can all play a role in helping to remove the dark cloud that still hovers over mental illness and mental health issues in general. We can all become more aware, more knowledgeable, more open-minded and less judgmental.

We can all be a bit more understanding and a whole lot more compassionate.

Perhaps then the fear will begin to fade as well.

Do you feel there is still a dark cloud or stigma attached to mental illness?

Were your emotional needs addressed during cancer treatment?

Have you every suffered from depression or any other mental illness?





anxious girl

Sunday 18th of November 2012

Thanks for posting this :) every blog for mental health counts in raising awareness, i agree there are so many different campaigns every month it's hard to keep tracker, i myself suffer with mental health problems and surport people with them too so this day means alot and is important to me, there's always going to be people which don't understand unfortantely, there are many which surprise you and do but also many with very old fashioned and narrow minded opinions xx


Tuesday 20th of November 2012

Anxious Girl, Thank you for finding this post and taking time to comment on it now. Mental health issues are really tough to deal with sometimes due to the stigma, cost of treatment and numerous other factors. Good for you for speaking out. Hope you're doing well.

Beth L. Gainer

Friday 25th of May 2012

Hi Nancy,

Finally trying to catch up on all the blog posts I've missed thus far. This post on the mental trauma of a cancer diagnosis and the stigma of mental illness is excellent! I agree that there is such a stigma to mental illness of any type. And it's a shame; I think the stigma comes from the misperception that people somehow can control their minds, but not their physical bodies.

For me, cancer diagnosis and treatment has laid a heavy toll -- physically and emotionally. Luckily, I have an arsenal of tools in my toolbox to help me cope, exercise, painting, and writing, to name a few. But I always feel like I'm tottering between mental health and an unhealthy mental state.

Once again, thank you for this great post.


Tuesday 29th of May 2012

Beth, You make a good point about where the stigma possibly comes from. It makes no sense to equate mental health issues with weakness. I'm glad you have that arsenal in your toolbox, Beth. Too many people do not. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

Dawn Stratton, LCPC

Thursday 24th of May 2012

Wow...thanks for this post. This is so true that people hesitate to talk about mental/emotional health. And I agree about the stigma. I am a counselor for people affected by cancer, and I see this all the time. I love this post because I’ve also talked with people about the emotional scars compared to the physical scars, and how there are ways to help the healing of the emotional scars too. But I am also afraid that people suffer in silence. Hopefully with more people like you blogging about their experiences and speaking their truths, people will be more willing to speak out and get help. I also agree that emotional well being for cancer patients seems to be neglected...I hope it is changing and I hope to be a part of that change. I too suffered from depression during treatment (12 years ago) and post-treatment. I am hoping that by admitting that I struggled, others will feel more able to not only admit but get the support they need. Again, thanks so much for this post...I'll be following you!


Thursday 24th of May 2012

Dawn, Thank you for all the work you do to help people heal from the emotional scars of cancer. Too many people do suffer in silence, and not just those who've had a cancer diagnosis. Change is coming, but it's coming slowly. It's wonderful you are so open about your personal experience with depression. That will undoubtedly continue to help many. Thanks so much for reading and for taking time to comment. I'll check out your site soon.

Mid-Week Balance: 23 May 2012

Wednesday 23rd of May 2012

[...] that went on last Wednesday.  Nancy, of Nancy’s Point, did a lovely job exploring the mental health implications of cancer.  She makes a powerful case for the importance of better preparing people to be cancer [...]

Lori Hope

Monday 21st of May 2012

Nancy, you know how I feel about this. And indeed more attention is being paid to the psychosocial aspect of cancer, by the NCI and other major cancer organizations (this is discussed in the preface to the second edition of my book, where I talk about all the changes that have taken place since 2005). But still, the stigma remains. And people still just do not get it.

I'm experiencing this now as I face a possible "terminal diagnosis". Okay, not possible, but real. I feel so lonely, so needy, no terrified. So vulnerable. So out of my mind and out of my element.

But back to you, my dear. Thank you for writing about this. As always, beautifully put. xox, Lori


Tuesday 22nd of May 2012

Lori, Things have improved, but just not enough. I'm sorry you are feeling so lonely, needy, terrified and vulnerable. I cannot imagine how it must be for you, but I do care. I hope you realize how many do. Thank you for speaking out about living with stage IV lung cancer. Thank you for being you.

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