Hoping For a Miracle: Mental Health Care Should Be Standard Treatment for All Cancers

A trauma therapist who specializes in cancer would have been helpful for my wife and I as we navigated her cancer experience, but the option was never discussed at our health care visits.

It’s likely that most cancer caregivers can vividly and painfully recall how and where it all started. One minute life is normal, and the next, life is upside down and unimaginably frightening.

I was in my home art studio working on an illustration assignment that had me daydreaming about retiring someday and doing en plein air painting somewhere green. It was late afternoon on an exceptionally pleasant Arizona autumn day, and I had no clue that my life was about to change forever.

Suddenly my wife appeared in the doorway and blurted out in a shaky voice, “I have a painful lump.” Because she had lost both her parents to cancer, those five words absolutely terrified me as I dropped my paintbrush on the floor and leapt up off my chair.

That lump turned out to be stage 4 triple-negative breast cancer caused by a BRCA2 mutation. The diagnosis instantly flung me into a difficult role that I never wanted but hoped I would somehow be able to find the strength and courage to do.

But I was just an illustrator. A whimsical, hopeless romantic artist for children’s publications. I lived in a world mostly filled withdrawing smiling kids, cute animals and cheerful vignettes. But this was a bleak picture I now faced. What did I know about dealing intellectually, medically and emotionally with a cruel life-threatening disease? I was scared for her and felt totally on my own tofigure out an increasingly demanding and unbearably heartbreaking job.

Caregiving left me exhausted and overwhelmed as I tried to stay on top of everything as I vigilantly watched over and cared for the love of my life. I longed for personalized guidance on how to negotiate the nightmare scenario I encountered daily, and often wished for an empathetic ear to just listen to what I was going through. (But I’m sure I would have felt guilty complaining. After all, I was not the one struggling to survive a horrible, life-threatening illness.)

A therapist who had experienced the trauma and tragedies of being a cancer caregiver might have been helpful — someone who could relate to the awfulness and the heartache. I needed someone who would have told me it’s OK to be human in an incredibly inhuman situation.

However, the need for mental health therapy for my wife or me was never talked about during any doctor visit or hospital stay, no matter how dire the situation was. As the cancer rapidly advanced and caregiving became more intense and desperate, finding the time and energy to reach out for emotional help was just not possible.

Looking back, I wish mental health care had been a regular part of my wife’s treatment plan. And I wish I had had professional emotional support as well. I know both of us would have benefited greatly. But neither one of us ever got that care. Instead, we both kept hoping for a miracle, ignoring and stuffing down all the emotions while we desperately struggled to handle all the physical difficulties the cancer relentlessly kept throwing at us.

Hopefully someday there will be a cure for cancer — or better yet, cancer prevented from ever happening. But until then, I hope mental health care and emotional support will become a standard part of treatment for all cancers. I think it would be good medicine for patients with cancer and those who love and care for them too.

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