Considering mental health issues for patients who have gone through a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, may or may not come naturally to health care professionals. In my experience as a medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) patient and a healthcare professional, I see this in my patients’ parents very frequently. I often recommend them to find professional help once they leave the hospital environment, or sometimes even while they are still in the hospital.
For myself, however, dealing with something along these lines was the furthest from my mind at the time. That changed when one of my doctors called me into his office. He explained to me he often calls in patients who have gone through something traumatic to talk about their mental status. It took me by surprise to even have him bring it up.
It turned out that my mother had made comments to him. She saw the same family doctor and had talked to him about me and her concerns about my mental health. In her opinion, I was less happy and much more irritable than before my diagnosis. At first, I was mad at my mother for doing so. I also dismissed the concerns of my doctor. I told him that I was coping well. Sure, I had moments that were more difficult than others, but overall, I was doing fine.
At least I managed to fool myself into believing that I was fine.
The next couple of months after this conversation, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I thought about if they were right, if there was anything to the concerns. Over time, I noticed there were situations where I would be in a room full of people, but feel utterly alone. There were other instances where we were at friends’ houses and all I wanted to do was go home and sit on the couch, away from others.
When I was not sitting on the couch, I made myself overly busy by going back to work, starting a side business, meeting with friends and family, and more. However, I realized I did all of these things to avoid thinking about what actually happened to me over the last 2 years.
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I would spend hours on my phone at night because I couldn’t fall asleep. This led to sleeping in very late when I wasn’t working. Even once awake, it took me an hour or more to even get out of bed. Once I finally managed to get out, I would shower and plop myself on the couch and spend most of my days there in front of the TV. This is what most of my days off looked like.
Eventually, I broke down with my husband and asked him how he saw my mental health. He agreed that there were things I needed to work through. This was the last push I needed to get in to see someone professionally to help me make sense of all of the things that happened to me.
Shortly after this, I started therapy to work through all of these issues. Many were around what happened throughout my treatment time. Another area that ended up needing much work, was around relationships in my life and how they had changed after diagnosis.
This included relationships with my immediate family, as well as many friends, co-workers, and in some instances, people I hadn’t even known before my diagnosis. In some of the relationships, I needed to set boundaries. These boundaries also included how people talked with and about me.
For example, my mother would sometimes introduce me to people who had been praying for me as ‘the daughter who has cancer.’ This started to really have an effect on me. It felt like that was all I was to her and so many others, ‘the girl who has cancer.’
All of these and so many more issues were talked about in therapy and I was able to work through them.
As much as I was upset with my mother and my family doctor at the beginning, I am so grateful now that they had this conversation with me. It pointed the direction for more intense and focused mental healing.
I was lucky that my mother saw the same physician as me and was able to have the starting conversation with him. Your patients may not be this lucky and have others who may lead doctors to bring up the concerns of mental health to their patients.
I encourage healthcare to be this voice of concern to your patients. Your patients may not be able to put their feelings in context or understand their connection to mental health struggles without help. Listen intently to what your patients are sharing and encourage them to at least to talk to one professional mental health expert about their experiences. Chances are, they will learn more than they had ever thought. I know I was grateful to be able to work through all of these issues.