Tree of Life Counseling - Greensboro, North Carolina

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Mental Health and Cancer: Equality in Courage, Disparity in Understanding

Written by Mary Seymour and Melissa Weekley*

*Name has been changed for confidentiality and to protect the privacy of the individual

Which is harder to live with – a mental health diagnosis or a cancer diagnosis? Melissa has dealt with both and says, “I have come to realize that dealing with a mental health diagnosis and a cancer diagnosis are basically equal. They are just different kinds of equal.”

Melissa has had a long, hard road. She has struggled with mental health concerns from a young age and at age 25 was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, persistent severe depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. She has since been hospitalized several times for depression and mania. Melissa sees a psychiatrist and therapist regularly.

Melissa was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30 and successfully treated for it. After 25 years of remission, she was diagnosed with omentum cancer, a rare and incurable cancer located in the abdominal cavity that carries a life expectancy of less than five years. She’s had nine rounds of chemotherapy so far and is expecting further treatment.

What’s bothered her significantly in this process is the difference in how she’s been treated with her mental health concerns versus her cancer. One condition comes with cards, visits, monetary gifts, and considerable kindness. The other bears less sympathy and understanding and is treated as an embarrassment. According to Melissa:

Cancer is an illness that is more clearly understood. Most people are supportive and compassionate about the diagnosis. I receive positive attention, and I feel that I can share information regarding the physical symptoms, treatments, and frequent medical appointments without fear of judgment. I also believe that one of the reasons cancer derives more sympathy is due to increased awareness of the disease. Therefore it naturally forces the patient and their loved ones to face their own mortality.

For many years Melissa held a full-time job, until she was part of a general layoff in 2008. Since then, she says, “I have experienced a long-term severe depression and persistent anxiety that has affected my ability to find a job.” Although Melissa has suffered far longer with mental illness than with cancer, she has found little support. In her words:

I receive little to no support from people outside the mental health system. Many don’t know how to show support due to lack of knowledge of mental health challenges that are mostly invisible. Most people tend to deny that I have a serious illness that requires continuous treatment, compassion and support. Additionally, I’m less likely to disclose the illness due to the stigma it carries. With no awareness, people don’t know that aid is needed. When I have acknowledged my diagnoses, I have been shamed, ignored, and belittled based solely on the knowledge that I have these challenges. Mental illness has affected my ability to succeed in higher education and subsequently to succeed in professional pursuits. I don’t believe that I’ve had a choice in these matters; rather that the illness has made these choices for me. Mental health concerns have also affected my relationships. What many don’t realize is that, as with cancer, there are fatalities associated with a mental illness. It contributes to critical physical illnesses, suicide and other consequences of disastrous behaviors.

So what does she hope for the future? What changes would she like to see in treatment and attitudes?

My hope is that people with mental health challenges would be accepted and treated with the same respect and compassion as those with a cancer diagnosis. Mental illness is real and not something that the patient fabricates. I also wish for those with mental illness to be celebrated like those with cancer for their strength in surviving and for their endurance throughout struggles and triumphs in their journey.

Why speak out about such personal struggles? Melissa speaks because the message is too important to leave hiding in the dark. Speaking out, speaking her truth, has become her crusade as she faces her own mortality.

Talk about bravery.

In honor of those that continue to fight the good fight, and in memory of those that have gone before us.

Submitted by Melissa Weekley, in loving memory of Mary Seymour.

Should you have any questions, personal reflections, or comments: Melissa’s preferred contact information is mweekley0311@gmail.com