Wednesday 19 August, 2020

Cancer, trauma and post-traumatic growth: A new way of thinking about long-term illness

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Counsel Directory recently met with War On Cancer app co-founder Fabian Bolin and spoke about cancer, trauma and post-traumatic growth. When we talk about cancer, we tend to do so from a physical perspective. We talk about the symptoms, signs and screenings. We discuss treatment plans, medical advancements, studies and survival rates.

We measure victories in limiting the spread of cancer within an individual, we celebrate those who achieve remission, and we applaud someone’s ability to cope with the myriad of physical health difficulties that cancer (and the treatment of it) can cause. We recognise that cancer is an extremely traumatic physical experience: but why do we shy away from discussing the negative mental impact cancer often has on those going through it?

According to Cancer Research UK, 50% of cancer patients will survive the disease for ten years or more. When you consider the fact that nearly 22% of cancer patients report symptoms of PTSD within the first six months of treatment, and 25% of cancer patients experience clinical depression either during or after treatment, the importance of understanding cancer and its impact on people’s mental health becomes significantly more apparent.

Cancer can be mentally traumatic

Experiencing something as physically demanding and isolating as cancer can indeed be mentally traumatic – I know this because I have been through it myself. By recognising the disease as a trauma, and providing the kind of mental health support that trauma survivors require as part of all cancer treatments, we could open the door to a more holistic and successful approach for people during and after cancer treatment. In incorporating a more inclusive system into cancer treatments, that address both a patient’s mental and physical health, we’ll be better able to protect the long-term, mental well-being of patients.

Coping with emotional and mental trauma

I personally coped with the emotional and mental trauma caused by my diagnosis by sharing my cancer journey with others through a designated blog, which I named Fabian Bolin’s War On Cancer. By channelling my experience into this, I developed several coping mechanisms that helped make the overall experience of cancer more bearable. The first and most obvious coping mechanism that resulted from this blog was the catharsis brought on by expressive writing. Journaling my experience enabled me to process my unexpected diagnosis, and cope with the mental and physical side effects of my treatment in real-time.

Through my blog, I also tapped into a social support network that proved to be a crucial coping mechanism throughout my experience with cancer. It’s important to build a support network made up of people that understand what it means to go through cancer, as opposed to having loved ones that care for you but simply cannot understand your full experience. My blog was a useful tool in helping my friends and family understand how they could better support me during my treatment in 2015, as they learned how to treat me as a person going through cancer, rather than a victim of this disease.

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