For healthcare professionals treating patients like myself with medullary thyroid cancer (MTC), the focus is on treating the actual disease. However, there are aspects of a holistic patient approach that are just as important, yet more difficult to treat.
I am talking, of course, about the patient’s mental health.
Over the upcoming weeks, I will spend some time on this topic, since it has been a major part of both my active cancer treatment, as well as my recovery. Mental health starts having an impact way before we even have a diagnosis, as you may be able to imagine.
While waiting for a diagnosis, our minds wreak havoc on us. There are always thoughts like “what if?,” “What is the worst-case scenario?” and “please listen to me” swirling around in our heads. All of those thoughts and more are amplified once the diagnosis is finally rendered.
By the time I received my diagnosis, I should have probably been diagnosed with some sort of depression, as well as MTC. I was slightly relieved for a few moments once I got an actual reason why I was feeling the way I was; just enough, for the almost crippling anxiety to take hold instead of the depression.
Now I had a recovery to work toward. At the same time, there were also many unknowns awaiting me on this journey. I did have the occasional mental breakdown throughout the first few months, however, the actual toll this whole journey took on me, didn’t become clear until much later.
The first signs of how big of an impact the diagnosis, treatments, and recovery had on my mental health, showed up over a year and a half after my diagnosis, after I returned to work. Once life returned to “normal,” it was clear that “normal” was no more.
There was a conversation my husband and I had to have in our mid-20s, that most people either never have or at least not until they are much older. We had conversations, such as how I would like to spend my final days. I also started the conversation with my husband potentially looking for another spouse once I was gone.
I had to come to terms with the fact that my life will never again look like the lives of my peers. There will always be doctor appointments. There will be tests that I will have to endure that most of my friends and coworkers my age, will never have to experience.
I was lucky enough that my health care professionals assessed my mental health issues and also wrote the referral for me to see a psychologist. In many cases, the assessments are made in intake forms before the appointments, however, never actually are followed up upon.
I was seeing a psychologist shortly after I was referred. Due to most of my mental health issues stemming from my cancer diagnosis, these sessions were also covered through our health care system. Again, I know I am incredibly lucky to have had access like this since I live in Canada.
There are many differences between the Canadian health care system and systems in other countries. I am so grateful, that for me, I did not have the added stressor of having to figure out how to pay my medical bills on top of worrying about getting better.
I am grateful that since my diagnosis I have been under mental health care in one way or another for the majority of the time. It has helped me come to terms with my diagnosis. I am able to live life mostly free of anxiety around MTC.
If you are in any position to help your patients get access to mental health care, I urge you to offer it to your patients. Even if they are unaware of their need at the time, they will thank you in the long run. If you are in a position to change your health care system’s approach to cancer patients and their need for mental health treatments.
Everyone deserves to be healthy, both mentally and physically.