Over the last 30 years, October – National Breast Cancer Awareness Month – has sparked an annual nationwide conversation about breast cancer. In addition to messages of prevention, early detection and awareness, the rhetoric of this conversation tends to focus on survivorship and “beating” cancer.
While these themes have their value and place, one aspect of the conversation is notably absent: the mental health of the women currently living with the disease.
As a counseling intern in an oncology center, I regularly sit with women who have just received the diagnosis they feared most. The mental and emotional anguish they face enormously complicates their physical struggle, yet these concerns are often overlooked or under-addressed by the current system of care.
Take, for example, “Lily.”
I remember meeting Lily for the first time, less than 24 hours after her cancer diagnosis. She was tearful and unmoored, and her questions started cascading as soon as the door was shut: How am I ever going to make it through the treatments? What is going to happen to us financially if I can’t work? How can I be strong for my adult children? What if this is my last Christmas?
The next week, Lily returned to session calmer, with pink ribbons dangling from her ears. She was determined, she announced, to “beat this thing.” Positive thinking, her faith and family would be her armor, and the well wishes, prayers, and casseroles of friends, her phalanx.