Mental health and Metastatic Breast Cancer

Mental health and the ability to handle the emotional and psychological affects of living with a terminal disease is a tricky topic. There is still a general stigma in the community at large about mental health and seeking treatment for mental health struggles. I see this stigma far less within the metastatic breast cancer community since we’re all dealing with far more than a human can easily handle; at the same time, I think there is still pressure on patients to handle their struggles quietly or not obviously or not publicly.

I’m frankly horrified by this attitude because I think it means the people who need help don’t always feel comfortable seeking it out.

As most people who know me know, I’m up front and frank about those things that make my life easier. I sought out mental health support and have been on medication to deal with the overwhelming weight of my life and diagnosis very early on in my experience with cancer. It still does feel weird to lean on a professional for support since psychotropic medication and seeing a psychiatrist has literally never been part of my life until now. However, I recognized and still recognize that it is necessary and vital to my quality of life (QOL).

Quality of Life is one of those things that becomes a bit of a tug of war between patients and medical professionals, but I don’t think it has to be that way. Medical professionals have a very important job to do when it comes to the treatment of cancer. They are the professionals on the treatment. What I think is often missed is that we patients also bring expertise to the table — we are experts in our own bodies and in living with cancer. A successful doctor-patient relationship has to balance or harmonize both of these perspectives or something will get missed.

When it comes to mental health, I have found personally that some doctors are not quick to refer out a patient to someone. Mine certainly didn’t. I had to refer myself and get a recommendation from people I knew and trusted. I don’t think this was because of stigma, just that my doctor wasn’t looking at me as a whole person, in need of support in each facet of my life.

And that is what we need–support for each facet of our lives.

Why is this still not acknowledged widely? There are cancer centers who have moved towards a more integrated approach, involving doctors who specialize in just that, integrating care. Most have not and I know people who travel to get the care that they need when local centers don’t. Those of us who need care for a cancer diagnosis, terminal or not, need to be treated as an entire person and we need to be given options rather than the burden being placed on the patient to figure out what is offered.

During this time of greater stress and anxiety for everyone across the world, seeking out mental health support is a necessity, for those of us who are already handling so much and for everyone else who has been negatively affected by COVID-19. Reaching out and asking for help, seeking help, is so important right now when others may not see us regularly. Our support system may not be able to notice and intervene because of social distancing, so it becomes incumbent on us to ask for help.

How have you asked for help?

18 thoughts on “Mental health and Metastatic Breast Cancer

  1. This is so complicated. Firstly there is that general attitude people have to deny that they can be affected. It is always some other person who has cancer, or some other couple who has a marriage breakdown. And even from medicos I have heard mental illness described as a negative personality trait.
    This is an important post.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes. I’m s college student counselor, trained to see and suggest help for students in need. But for myself, I was arrogant enough to think I could handle anything. HA. After the Stage 4 diagnosis, after 6 years NED, I was a mess. I feel like I have someone who listens to JUST ME and it makes all the difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Treating the whole person is so important. I have been very fortunate that my cancer center is very focused on helping me to live my best life, even as I undergo treatment for chronic cancer. Thank you for your insightful thoughts on this subject.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is such an important message, Abigail—truly universally important, especially now, but of course it takes on particular urgency and constancy when you must cope with a lethal diagnosis.
    A number of years ago, I wrote for our county mental health department, and much of my work involved seeking to combat the stigma involved in acknowledging the need for care, which prevented so many people from accessing life-enhancing and sometimes life-saving treatment. I never understood why mental illness was placed in a different category from physical illness. I think we’ve made some strides in overcoming the stigma, but as your post confirms, we have a long way to go. And one issue may involve that strange “pity” factor that you’ve written about in relation to being on the receiving end as a cancer patient, also applicable to mental health issues per se. I think it’s related to people’s fears of what they themselves might face—or may be facing, but can’t accept.
    So brava to you for once again shining light, honesty, and good sense where they’re sorely needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think much of the reactions are based in fear and unfamiliarity. If enough people who look “put together” or “successful” are willing to talk about needing help and where to get it, I am hopeful that the stigma is lessened. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comments. Much appreciated! ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is so helpful. We have a friend at church who’s daughter is in stage 4 uterine cancer and is only 41 and has young children. She’s had to miss some of her chemo treatments. It’s scary to me, so I’m sure it is to her. You inspire.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes! The last time I was checked in, I remember being surprised and mildly offended that my pulmonologist or a psychiatrist on my case. Until he came in to see me on the third day, and I realized I hadn’t gotten my medication, and that explains why I was an emotional basket case. This doctor is the doctor I adore and rave about. He is so on top of his game, and this is just one more example. You put it into the perfectly appropriate words: “saw me as a whole person.” So much so that he saw me better than I saw myself, when I was too sick to remember to be on top of things like that myself. Thanks for this post! I’m posting it to my page.

    Liked by 1 person

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