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Guest Perspectives: Mental Health During and Beyond Cancer

June 10, 2019

Editor’s note: We invited breast cancer survivor and blogger Emilia Yonge, from Houston, to share her perspectives on mental health and cancer.

For survivors, after major treatments are over, emotional support is still needed - even more so when transitioning back to 'normal' life.”

My breast cancer journey started three years ago in May 2016 when I was 45 years old. I was in the best possible condition. I was physically fit, spiritually mature, a non-smoker, did not consume alcohol or recreational drugs, etc. My husband of then-24 years had a steady, telecommuting job with exceptional insurance coverage and sympathetic employers, allowing him to attend almost all my major appointments with doctors and medical procedures. My children were no longer the ages where they needed my constant supervision.

If I summed up in one word what people I know who have been following my story got from it, it would be: "fortitude."

Merriam-Webster defines 'fortitude' as 'strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage.'

Courage does not mean an absence of fear; it means confronting your fears. While I had no experience with cancer, having no family history of it, I had long been learning the lessons of life's impermanence and unpredictability.

Among the most significant lessons on my cancer journey are: better awareness and understanding of the mental health of those affected by cancer and the need for more effective care to address it.

Breast cancer survivor Emilia Yonge donned a Japanese anime costume during one of her treatment appointments.

When diagnosed with a serious illness, we are forced to face our mortality. Our whole family also must confront it. The greatest fear of human beings is loss of life: one's own or a loved one's. For me, I have come to realize something worse: the loss of the quality of life.

While cancer has been extensively studied and researched, mental illness caused or exacerbated by it is less understood and cared for properly. It can happen not just during the treatment but more likely, afterwards, when regular care by doctors and nurses, and support from relatives and friends, have already tapered off. It is usually only then that the patient and family begin to experience the full measure of the psychological impact of their ordeal.

For me, the word "survivor" itself is misleading. It gives the impression that we can hang up our gloves after we have overcome the battle. This comes from people's need to hear happy endings. But real life is not so clear-cut. Cancer treatment is a life-changing experience; it does not simply come and go. It involves a long process and maintenance takes the rest of our lives.

For survivors, after major treatments are over, emotional support is still needed - even more so when transitioning back to 'normal' life.

Instead of overemphasizing positivity, we must have the guts to show both negative and positive aspects of the journey and the full spectrum in between. Rather than tiptoeing around the subject of mental health, we should engage in more outreach and include care. Which sufferer - or caregiver - of any disease is exempt from grappling with its toll on his/her mental health? Why do we find ourselves unprepared to face mortality when we inevitably come to confront it through illness or injury?

After any war or battle, maintaining peace requires the continued vigilance and training of fighters. What is helpful to me is to know that, like physical training, the strength you have gained through the pain is worth keeping. It is empowering. You can move on. But you have earned a badge of honor that stays with you. You can choose to put it in a drawer and forget about it or wear it with pride like the warrior that you are.

You read more about Yonge’s cancer survivorship on her blog: https://brokenbeautiful.blog/

The information included in this testimonial is based on one patient’s unique experience and is not intended to represent all patient outcomes or expectations.


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