Mental Illness And Cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

If anyone deserves a guaranteed place in heaven, it’s people who support a loved one who has both serious mental illness and cancer.

This is more common than one might expect. I know of several individuals who are helping family members through cancer after helping them through mental illness for years or even decades.

I’ve found that many people with mental illness – especially those with a supportive family member – get through cancer treatment remarkably well, sometimes even better than people without mental illness.

Several oncology nurses I’ve talked with have also observed this. One suggested that people with mental illness have developed good coping mechanisms because they’ve already faced so many challenges in life. Cancer is just one more challenge to add to that list.

I suspect people with mental illness feel some relief that cancer is so tangible. Unlike mental illness – which often exists in shades of gray – cancer tends to be black and white. It shows up in X-Rays and lab tests. Everyone can see it.

And people with mental illness often develop an almost instinctive sense of which health professionals are trustworthy. If you’ve been seeing doctors and therapists for years, you get a good sense of who really cares and who is just going through the motions. Oncology nurses and radiation therapists are especially good at creating nurturing and trusting relationships with patients going through cancer treatment.

But few things are as helpful to a person with cancer – whether mental illness is involved or not – than having a loved one beside them to provide day-to-day support and practical assistance.

Family relationships are often strained by mental illness, so it’s common for the person with mental illness to be isolated. Loved ones who have stayed connected and supportive of those with mental illness have likely worked hard to maintain those relationships.

These family members often ask me how they can help now that their loved one has cancer in addition to their mental illness. What I tell them is that their presence and concern count more than anything.

I do encourage caregivers to remember to care for themselves. They’re living with considerable stress and uncertainty. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers excellent programs of family to family support.(The telephone number is the Ithaca area is 273-2462).The Mental Health Association in Tompkins County (273-9250) is another excellent resource supporting people with mental illness and their loved ones.

At some point in time, many of us receive a diagnosis of cancer or mental illness. It’s a huge challenge and often life-changing. Now imagine dealing with cancer and mental illness at the same time. Many people do so with remarkable courage and grace. I admire them and I admire their family members who stand near and love them every step of the way.


From the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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