The connection between mental health and physical health is undeniable. Maximizing and nurturing our physical health can definitely have benefits for our mental health, including reduced stress, improved relaxation, and greater overall satisfaction in all parts of our lives.
Likewise, physical illnesses can have detrimental impacts our mental health. The unknown or frightening prognosis, the demands of treatment, and the struggle to cope with symptoms can all contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression and make it difficult to use the coping strategies that might usually work for us.
There is no more appropriate time to talk about the mental health impacts of physical illness than June, Daffodil Month, which encourages cancer awareness. A good friend who is a cancer survivor once told me something I never forgot. She said that after finishing her chemotherapy and radiation, everyone around her told her how courageous and strong she was, and while she valued that, it made it even more difficult for her to talk about the overwhelming fear and depression she was feeling. Talking about mental health isn’t always easy, and it can become even more complex when dealing with multiple health conditions.
I was recently introduced to the journey of Heather Von St. James, 11-year mesothelioma survivor and advocate. It took Heather seven years of struggling after finishing her cancer treatment before she received counseling from a professional who diagnosed her with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety and helped provide her with coping tools for the future. Heather now focuses on raising awareness for mesothelioma, supporting the cancer community, and speaking to the importance of cancer survivors fighting stigma and getting support for their mental health.
So, what are some things to remember about the importance of mental health at all points in a cancer journey?
- Life during and after cancer can bring a huge range of emotions that will be individual to each person. Accept that there is no “normal” reaction and struggles shouldn’t be written off as something that inevitably accompany cancer. If you are experiencing thoughts, feelings, and physical symptoms that are interfering with your regular day-to-day life, it’s a sign that you may benefit from further support.
- Seek out the resources you need. It may be a counsellor, a psychologist, a support group, or whatever is meaningful to you. Heather talks about not just her therapist and supportive family, but also her writing and her faith as keys to her recovery. Not sure where to turn? Ask your healthcare provider or call the Canadian Mental Health Association.
- Focus on all aspects of your health, both physical and mental. Talk about not just how you are feeling physically but also about your thoughts and feelings. Don’t feel the need to diagnose yourself with a specific mental illness – just share what you’re experiencing with your healthcare provider and take the conversation from there.
- Give yourself permission to care for yourself. Milestones along your journey are something to celebrate, but don’t pressure yourself to “get back to normal”. You may have a new normal, and part of preparing for that and maximizing your health is taking time for yourself. Make time to do what you enjoy as you feel able. As Heather says, “My husband kept telling me to just be patient; healing takes time.”
11 years into her journey, Heather reflects on the ups and downs of her experiences: “Cancer took a lot from me. But you know what else it did? It strengthened my faith in a higher power and in myself. It made me realize that I was stronger than I ever imagined I was, and that I could make it through nearly anything.”