5 things I wish I'd known about how cancer can impact mental health
Georgia was 22 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. She was helped by Teenage Cancer Trust at Addenbrooke’s Hospital during the coronavirus pandemic. She tells us the ways she wished she’d known cancer would impact her mental health.
I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in early 2020, right before the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK.
I went through a lot of different feelings, fears and emotions during my treatment, as all young people do. But I wasn’t prepared for the different ways cancer could affect my mental health.
So I wanted to share some things I wish I’d known, for others facing the same.
I have strength I didn’t realise I had…
My mum came to West Suffolk Hospital with me for my test results before I was diagnosed. I wanted to go in alone to prove I could do things for myself; up until then my mum or my boyfriend Tom did everything for me.
But when I got to the door, the doctor asked me if I had anyone with me. I knew then that they weren’t going to tell me anything I wanted to hear.
Shortly after, when I started my fertility treatment, Tom had just been to Milan and coronavirus was prevalent in Italy, so he was told to wait outside.
That’s when it struck me that I might have to go through a lot of my treatment on my own. I didn’t like the idea of that, but I knew it was something I needed to prepare for.
…But I still needed my family and friends
Facing difficult things doesn’t mean doing it alone.
Right after my diagnosis, I just bottled it all away and tried to show that I was a strong person. I wanted to do things for myself like make my lunch, but my iron levels dropped really low, and I often felt dizzy and my mum would have to take over.
I had to shield, and the only time I could leave the house was to go to hospital. Tom lives in a different county so even when restrictions eased, I still couldn’t see him.
I couldn’t see my dad and he had to watch me go through everything over texts and calls. I wasn’t able to see my best friend either.
From losing my hair to just needing a hug, it all hit me like a tonne of bricks. It’s funny how you can feel so alone sometimes, even at hospital when you have so many people around you who are all in the same situation.
That made me realise that even though some of my loved ones weren’t physically close, I still really relied on their support.
It’s normal to feel anxious about treatment and side effects
It’s hard to prepare yourself for your first round of cancer treatment. I went up to the Teenage Cancer Trust unit at Addenbrooke’s Hospital by myself. It was very daunting, and I dreaded it.
I was wearing a mask and behind my mask I was trying to do deep breathing to calm myself down as I was on the verge of a panic attack. I didn’t want to go onto the unit having a panic attack or a breakdown as I just thought everyone would see me as an emotional wreck.
After my first chemo session, my mum and I were still learning about all of the tablets I needed to take, and we forgot an anti-sickness drug. I was being sick from 2am until 8am.
The next day, I was getting agitated because I was worried I was going to be sick again. But I spoke to the nurse about it, and she sat with me and calmed me down. She made me realise that it’s OK to find treatment and the side effects difficult, and to feel anxious about it.
Being honest helps people help you
Looking back on my first round of chemo, I wish I had gone in showing that I was worried, as all of the Teenage Cancer Trust staff were so nice and so helpful.
I know now that I could have gone in having a panic attack and it wouldn’t have been a massive thing as the staff were used to helping people through their emotions.
I wish that I’d told people when I was having a bad day too, and got it out in the open as I think talking about it and asking for help would have greatly improved things.
Teenage Cancer Trust had introduced me to a counsellor at the hospital called Jo. She’d check how I was doing and see how I thought the treatment was going.
Initially I didn’t even fully open up to her. I think it would have helped if I could have seen her face-to-face and she did offer me that, but I wanted to limit my face-to-face interactions because of coronavirus.
My emotions were all over the place about what was happening next with my treatment and whether my scan results would be OK. I was scared to have the scan in case it was bad news.
Once I knew I was responding better to my treatment, I felt more able to open up to Jo. I knew that I had to start doing that - if I didn’t get it out, I would have a meltdown at another time when I couldn’t control it.
From there, the conversations flowed a lot more easily and it really helped.
In between my appointments with Jo, the Teenage Cancer Trust Nurses offered me all the support they could. They took the time to talk me through all of the treatment, and I felt that they were able to give me more of their time than other nurses might.
I felt cared about.
Just let it all out and let yourself feel the emotions
Cancer did affect my mental health – before that my mental health was fine.
So, it is so important to get psychological support. People just don’t realise how lonely cancer treatment can be, especially during the pandemic. I felt a million times better once I started opening up.
Without that support, I would have looked back on it all as a really horrible experience and a traumatic time in my life. With the support, I can now just look back on it as a part of my life.
My advice for other people who have just been diagnosed or who are going through treatment would be just let it all out and let yourself feel the emotions.
It will make things so much easier if you let things out and ask for help.
If I could re-do it, I would have definitely asked for help earlier.
If you’re a young person going through cancer and you feel you’re struggling with your mental health, please do speak to your clinical team, Teenage Cancer Trust Nurse or Youth Support Coordinator. They’ll do whatever they can to help you, which may include referring you to specialist support.