I am feeling a rant coming on, I am going to step up onto my soapbox for this post because I feel so strongly about this topic.  And here is why.

Each time you visit the oncologist, you have to complete a survey about your symptoms, in order to help track and alert your team if something is wrong.  On that survey, typically there is one question that asks if you are feeling anxious or depressed. If you rate yourself high enough, someone will likely ask you about it and hopefully make a referral to see the social worker connected to the practice. IF you rate yourself high enough.

I want every cancer survivor to be treated AS IF they scored high on the distress scale because cancer is not just a medical problem.  I have yet to find anyone diagnosed with cancer who simply experienced it as a medical concern that had no other impact on their psyche, their lives, or their support system.

Yet, with all of the information that we are given, with all of the other providers we are required to see to treat the cancer, having a meeting with a mental health expert is not a standard part of a person’s care team. It kind of reminds me of how in the US we have to have separate health insurance to cover care for our teeth… as if our teeth were completely separate from our body.  Our emotional wellness is just as important in cancer treatment.

And what is the lasting effect of this shroud of silence? It makes it much harder to recognize the deep emotional impact a life threatening illness has on a person.  Especially when we are being told to be strong and positive by almost every person we know.  Understandably, these messages are meant to be encouraging, but ultimately these messages have an unintended consequence, a silencing effect that can cause us to keep the hard stuff to ourselves.

In my opinion, it is a form of neglect to not think more holistically about how we are being impacted.  In the many conversations that I have had with cancer survivors, too often I hear people being perplexed, confused, or even ashamed of how deeply affected they are by the cancer experience.  In the presentations and workshops that I give, I regularly hear how grateful and validating it is to hear about the emotional side of the disease.

We need to do better.  We need to stop stigmatizing mental health concerns by normalizing them. We need to stop contributing to the divide by not incorporating a mental health expert as an integral part of the treatment team for every single cancer patient. We need to have the hard conversations. We need to leave space for people to feel safe enough to share their vulnerable side, their fears.

We need to return silence to its beneficial role, one that allows us to take a moment to reflect upon how we are doing prior to responding to someone we trust will listen.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, she works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, workshops, and this weekly blog. Check out the individual packages. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.