At 22 I was diagnosed with breast cancer which resulted in having a double mastectomy and 6 operations.
Before continuing to read, I want you to take a minute to really stop and think about what your initial reaction to me would be if I told you that in person.
My experiences of living with cancer
From my own experience, most people express sadness and sympathy. I am told I that I was so brave to go through it at such a young age. At the time people could not do enough to support me. I was sent so many flowers that my whole house smelled like a florist for weeks.
If I am completely honest, my experience did not elicit any emotion in me, I was not worried or anxious. I knew exactly what was going on to happen and that I was going to be fine. What I struggled with most was the frustration of having to take time off work and sit around at home, unable to do very much.
When I told people this, they suggested that I had not processed it yet, that I was in denial or that I was somehow lying. I understand now that people were simply projecting their own fear of death, but at the time it made me feel like there was something wrong with me for not feeling sad.
Trust me, I delved deep to try and seek those emotions and the trauma that people expected me to have. I got to the stage where I decided to just stop talking about it. That was 9 years ago and to this day there are friends that I have known for years that do not know that I have had cancer because it is not a topic that I feel comfortable talking about anymore.
The problem was not so much that people were being too supportive or kind as I really did appreciate it and cancer can and does understandably devastate people’s life. The problem was that my autonomy was taken away from me. I was dictated and told how I should feel. My own feelings were dismissed and ignored.
Talking about my mental health and others
The reaction people had to my mental health is in far contrast to that of my cancer. From a young age, I have suffered from periodic depression and issues with my mood. My depression is A-typical which means that rather than being overwhelmed with sadness and emotions, I feel emptiness, apathy, and like my limbs are made of lead. This type of depression, which has intermittent periods of happiness, makes it easier to put a front on and just get on with things.
I longed to feel something. My depression and moods were also accompanied by sporadic suicidal thoughts which I really struggled with. Cognitively I was still happy and positive, and I knew that I did not want to commit suicide so could not understand why I was having them.
When I told anyone this, including medical professionals, I was told that it was just because I was young and stressed which in their words was “normal”. I was told that “everyone has days where they feel a bit down”, “that there were people worse off than me”. I was told that “I had nothing to be depressed about because I had a lot of good things in my life” and even once that “it could be worse as I could have cancer”.
For me, my struggles with my mental health were far worse than that of my own personal experience of cancer. One similarity between both mental health and cancer however was, that I was again stripped off my autonomy and my right to feel. Like cancer, I stopped talking about it.
Why then do we treat cancer so differently to a mental health condition? I guess that cancer reminds us of our own inevitable mortality while mental health is invisible and intangible so in a way it is completely understandable and only human to do so.
The point of this blog is not to say that one trumps the other; there is no denying that cancer can and does take a massive toll on the mental health of many people; nor is it to point blame at anyone. It is simply to prompt people to reflect and challenge their reactions to both.
We should not assume that someone experiencing cancer is struggling nor that someone with mental health is just going through a ‘phase’. It is not our decision to dictate how that person may be feeling. You may not be one of these people, but it is something that individuals with a mental health condition experience throughout their lives and it is something that I commonly hear as a therapist.
The best reaction anyone can have is to simply just ask how they are feeling, to listen and to show empathy to whatever they tell us. Of course, lots of people hide or lie about how they feel but that is a choice they make and hopefully just simply knowing that we are there for them and accept them for however they may feel, may just prompt them to one day open up.