The Importance of Mental Health Support After A Cancer Diagnosis
So, you have been told the words, “You have cancer“, “I’m sorry, it’s cancer”, or how about “Your biopsy came back positive for malignant cells.”
No matter how you received your diagnosis, it is probably safe to say it speared you deep in the heart. Maybe, you tried so hard to move on with your life and in the process of discovering your “new normal” you were speared a second time. Maybe, you have heard the words “Recurrence” or maybe even “You are now stage 4.” Maybe it takes you to a place of emotions wedged in a spinning wheel, one that you want so badly to jump off but somehow cannot. You feel stuck, maybe disappointed, and I am sure, even if just for a moment, you feel hopeless.
With something as significant as being told that you have cancer, there will be significant shifts in your psychological state. Though we will all experience this shift to varying degrees, the reality is, we will feel it. Have you felt anxiety, distress, depression, anger or panic attacks? How about uncertainty, negativity, low self-esteem, body image issues or a strong desire to isolate? No matter how “strong” a person may be, can we possibly prepare for those words, “You have cancer”?
This is why it is so important to seek out mental health treatment and support after a diagnosis. Unfortunately, studies show that cancer care providers can misinterpret a patient’s mental health needs as much as 35% of the time. But speaking about your anxiety or depression while simply trying to understand your diagnosis can be difficult. As a mental health professional – psychotherapist, to be exact – and a breast cancer survivor, I know first-hand how easily mental health changes are overlooked and underprioritized. Our medical team’s goal is to keep us alive, but a key part of being alive is taking care of our mental health. While undergoing treatment for our physical wellness, the key to all-around healing is includes taking care of our mental wellness as well.
The brain is an organ just like our lungs, kidneys and our heart. It needs to be nourished and looked after. Illnesses in other parts of the body, such as breast cancer can impact how our brain functions. Just as our lungs can shut down, so can our minds. Without treating it, we are decreasing our ability to thrive when we are alive. When it came to my own breast cancer experience, at first my only ambition was to survive and persist beyond yesterday. But then I asked myself if I have a chance at tomorrow, how would I feel? What would I do with it? Could I handle it? Maybe I could; maybe I couldn’t. But unless I was taking care of my mental health, I was not giving myself a fighting chance.
If you have experienced a breast cancer diagnosis, you know the power of social supports such as caregivers, friends, mentors, and other survivors. These are the people who either know your experience because of their own diagnosis, or genuinely empathize with your circumstances. Having them around us expands our capacity to speak our feelings and our needs.
There are several studies to show the psychological and physical benefits that cancer patients experience when they participate in mental health treatment. Treating the mind can teach emotion regulation skills, mindfulness and relaxation techniques, positive self-talk, the power of optimism and how to access it and stress management. It will also provide you with a safe space to pour out those emotions you haven’t felt comfortable to explore.
Even as a breast cancer patient and survivor who works as a psychotherapist providing treatment to others, I too needed to treat my mind after receiving my diagnosis. And frankly, till this very day I am still in treatment for my mind. Healing is personal. It looks, sounds, feels, and tastes different from person to person. Some days will be more difficult than others, and that is okay!
Natasha Ewa is a 33-year-old Licensed Clinical Social Worker, who currently practices as a licensed psychotherapist in the state of Virginia. Natasha owns her private practice (I-Thrive Therapy and Wellness, LLC) providing individual, family and couples therapy to individuals age 14+. She also works full time as a program director, developing a new platform that will decrease poverty in Norfolk, VA by 50% in the next 15-20 years. Natasha is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed at the age of 29 with stage2 estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. She has been in remission for 3 years. Natasha is also a spoken word poet, a Zumba instructor who enjoys shopping (a little too much), someone who likes aesthetically pleasing house décor finds joy in organizing closets and anything that reminds her of nature.