Imagine being told that all the things you plan, all the moments you hope to have and all the achievements you aspire to may not happen. That’s what it is like when you hear a doctor say, “You have cancer.”
While many people know others who have battled or are currently battling some form of cancer, hearing those words never gets easier. Just because medical advancements have greatly improved the chances of remission and a long, healthy life doesn’t mean that diagnosis won’t drastically change your life. Because that’s the thing about life-changing diagnoses like cancer: They change everything.
When people imagine the experience of a typical cancer patient, what often comes to mind are physical symptoms like hair loss, nausea and fatigue. However, some of the biggest challenges a patient and their loved ones have to face are mental.
“When I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, I had a six-week-old baby. I wondered whether I’d see her grow up, whether she’d remember me when I was gone,” my mom explains. “I was told to get my affairs in order and hope for a year. What did that mean for my family? How would my 12-year-old son cope?” Fortunately, my mom beat the odds and is now entering her 24th year of cancer survivorship.
The types of thoughts my mom had after receiving her diagnosis can take a toll on a patient’s mental health and overall well-being, according to Dana Nolan, a licensed mental health counselor in central Florida.
Being diagnosed [with cancer] does not make someone mentally ill. But, in my experience, most cancer patients develop symptoms of anxiety and depression at some point during or after their treatment. While it is normal to experience mental health challenges, it is not necessary to simply suffer through it.
No two people respond the same way to difficult news, but there are several common mental health issues that may develop after any type of cancer diagnosis.
Cancer offers plenty of chances to worry both during and after cancer treatment. After you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, anxious thoughts and worries like these may become impossible to ignore:
- Is my prognosis accurate?
- What if I made the wrong treatment decision?
- What if my next scan shows the cancer has grown?
The last question represents a special category of anxiety nicknamed “scanxiety” by the cancer community. In an article on Medscape, author Nick Mulcahy explains, “Scanxiety is cancer patients’ fear and worry associated with imaging, both before and after a test (before the results are revealed).”
It’s normal to worry about the future sometimes, but when those worries begin to impede your ability to fully live your life, it’s time to ask for help.
A mental health counselor or therapist can help you determine what you are dealing with and how you can manage it. They may also recommend anti-anxiety medications such as Ativan or Xanax.
Depression affects an estimated 15% to 25% of cancer patients, according to the National Cancer Institute. Patients and their loved ones may develop depression because of the diagnosis itself, anxiety about the future, a changing self-image or even the side effects of certain cancer treatments.
It’s important to note that depression is not the same thing as feeling sad. Clinical depression often manifests in mood swings, fatigue, feelings of emptiness that last for more than a few days and feelings of helplessness or worthlessness. This may require medical attention.
Depression can affect all those around, not just the patient. Melanie Ball, who lost her dad to mesothelioma in 1993 when she was only 14 years old, also had to witness her mother sink into a deep depression that lasted for years after his death. Melanie’s mother chose to suffer in silence, but no one should have to face a life-changing illness, such as cancer or depression, alone.
If you or someone you love is suffering from depression, there is help. Many kinds of medical professionals can treat this condition through counseling, therapy or medication. Joining a support group can also make a big difference for those affected by cancer. In fact, studies show people with terminal cancers who participate in support groups have higher survival rates and increased quality of life.
People may grieve at many different times during and after a cancer battle, and grief is often shared by a patient’s entire support network. Lorraine Kember, a mesothelioma widow, explains how a cancer diagnosis can start the grieving process:
Anticipatory grief is the name given to the mix of emotions experienced when we are living with the expectation of a personal loss and grieving because of it. Anticipatory grief is particularly relevant to anyone who has received a terminal medical diagnosis and for people who love and care for that person.
Living with the expectation of death or loss can cause us to experience the same array of emotions that develop after the loss actually happens, including shock, denial, helplessness, sorrow, anger and physical pain.
While grief is normal during and after a cancer battle, you don’t have to grieve alone. Spend time with your family; they may be experiencing the same thing. Seek out grief support groups, which are often available at local hospices. And above all, remember to take things one day at a time.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
People are talking a lot about sexual harassment these days after it has been revealed that several rich, powerful men have been accused of using their position of power or authority to abuse or harassment many, many women AND men. There is a current trend on social media to post “#Metoo” if you have personal experience with sexual harassment or abuse to show just how wide spread this type of crime is.
“Why didn’t she report it?”
“Why didn’t they fight back?”
“She shouldn’t have put herself in that situation!”
These are all questions or comments that have been heard when the topic of sexual harassment or sexual abuse comes up. It is called “victim blaming” and sadly it’s is a phenomenon that has been around for centuries. Some gender and cultural stereotypes have supported the idea that “boys will be boys” and that it is human nature for men to pursue women aggressively in any setting for their sexual fulfillment.
Blaming the person accusing someone of sexual harassment or assault is a common response after being accused of this type of activity. Shifting the focus of blame from the abuser to the victim is a classic defense and it is unfortunate that many abusers have successfully used this defense to save their job or avoid punishment. The more victims see that those accused of sexual misconduct avoid serious consequences, the more helpless they feel that anyone will believe them when they report it.
As a therapist, I have worked with far too many people who were harassed, assaulted or raped and didn’t report the incident to authorities for fear that they wouldn’t be believed or would be blamed for being assaulted. Many times abusers threaten their victims with being fired, being slandered, being physically abused or worse if they report the abuse to others. Those who perpetrate sexual abuse are skilled at targeting victims that they believe can be overpowered by threats.
What can you do to support victims of sexual harassment or abuse?
*Believe them! Many victims have had their complaints ignored or minimized, so they come to accept that sexual misconduct is normal and accepted behavior. If someone tells you that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted, let them know that you believe them and that it is NOT okay.
*Don’t be complicit when observing others making inappropriate sexual comments or using their strength or power to harass someone. Silence equals agreement.
*Be proactive with children and teens in your life and tell them that NO ONE should ever be permitted to make inappropriate sexual comments about you or touch you without your permission.
*Refrain from making offhand comments about someone “asking for it” because of the way they are dressing or behaving.
*Offer to support the victim in reporting the abuse to the proper authorities and tell them that you will stand by them through the process of holding the abuser accountable.
When perpetrators of sexual abuse think that no one will believe their victims, they will continue to continue to harass and assault. So, anything that we can do let victims know that they will be believed and supported will begin let would-be abusers know that they won’t get away with it.