A Cancer Diagnosis and the Mental Health Ripple Effect

Rebecca explains the toll her mum's diagnosis and passing took on her mental health and those around her

When I was in my late teens, my Mum lost her fight with cancer. It took four months to discover exactly what was causing her symptoms, and the rarity of her diagnosis meant a rollercoaster ride of hope and despair before finally accepting palliative care as the best course of treatment. 

She passed away within ten months of first experiencing tiredness as the earliest indicator that something wasn't quite right. The uncertainty and subsequent acceptance of her prognosis resulted in a huge mental health struggle for both her and those closest to her. 

After suffering acute kidney failure around that time, and in recovery myself, it was comforting to have my mum coordinating her doctor tests and hospital stays with my own treatment. I'll never forget waiting in the nuclear medicine department at the hospital ahead of my kidney function test, and my mum trotting around the corner in a hospital gown - her knickers fully exposed at the back - to sit and wait with me. 

She was staying in an upstairs ward receiving a number of tests and blood transfusions to try and stabilise her bloodwork. At this point, we didn't know the severity of her condition, and therefore we had a lot of hope. Our mental health wasn't suffering, and we were filled with optimism. She was otherwise extremely healthy, her odds of a full recovery seemed good, and my own condition was stable too. It was comforting, reassuring and with her wicked sense of humour, it was hard to feel low. 

Despite being faced with the Big C, we had plenty of happiness in what was otherwise an anxious time. We'd dance in the hospital rooms to her terrible music choices, and we'd pick up a takeaway after a long day on the chemo ward. We'd visit towns and cities in the weeks when she felt strong enough and we were surrounded by a loving community of family and friends - many of whom, we discovered, had excellent baking skills!

Saying that, as happens to anyone diagnosed with cancer, you're suddenly thrown into an unfamiliar world of GP visits, hospital tests, consultants with big fancy titles, and a sea of vocabulary that might as well be a foreign language. 

As you can imagine, feeling overwhelmed is a given, and I know my Mum struggled to keep up her spirits at times. As her primary carer, I too suppressed much of my worry and looking back, I've realised that played a huge part in the mental health struggles I've experienced in the subsequent years.

In hindsight, all of the support was there. My Mum's GP referred me to a counselling service, as did the oncology ward at the hospital, but I didn't take them up on their offers for support. Macmillan Cancer Support also reached out and had an incredible amount of resources specifically tailored to mental health and cancer. I’ve been trying to analyse why I think I felt I could cope when in reality I was keeping my emotions locked away.

But at the time, my Mum and I were very much focussed on the physical symptoms of her cancer diagnosis, although to anyone experiencing something similar, my advice would be to give your mental wellbeing just as much attention.

When we got the final confirmation that her cancer was terminal, I saw the toll that it also took on the medical professionals. By this time, we were regulars at the hospital and in the chemo ward, and I'll never forget that particular appointment. A junior doctor was sitting in, listening to the news being shared by the consultant, and my mother was in her wheelchair.

It was clear she wasn't recovering in the way they had hoped. After sharing the news that she had between three weeks to three months to live, my mother broke down. I looked behind us to see the junior doctor wiping away silent tears. Tears were also shed by the incredible Marie Curie nurse who was at our home, holding our hands, the night she passed. We are all only human after all. 

Cancer is tough, it is cruel and it can appear without warning. It highlighted in those moments that anyone involved in cancer will face challenges with their mental health, not just the patient, but the family, friends and medical professionals supporting them.

What I have learnt since is that luckily there is a lot of support out there. I've since taken the time to prioritise my own mental health, and I can now look back on those memories with my Mum and reflect on the support and love we had for each other throughout that terminal journey. I feel blessed for the happier family memories we shared together.