My Mental Health Diagnosis Is Just as Serious as My Cancer Diagnosis
Before anyone yells at me for the title of this article, I want to be clear that I am currently battling stage IV cancer and have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, OCD and PTSD for nine years now. So, I think I have some room to speak on this topic. And it’s interesting, because I see things like cancer and mental health struggles constantly being compared. Some in the mental health community want to advocate that their struggle is just as bad as physical health, which can lead physical health patients to feel invalidated because not all people understand mental health.
I’m not here to tell you which is worse. I’m here to tell you why the two types of illnesses simply can’t be compared. One is not worse than the other.
Let’s start with cancer. It’s terrible, first of all. Chemo is hard, the constant pain is hard, being poked with countless needles is next to unbearable. When I say I’m so tired of going to the cancer center, I mean it. As I drive closer and start seeing familiar street names my heart sinks because I know I’m almost there. I have a feeling this diagnosis will be added on to my list of traumas — and I don’t say that lightly. It’s extremely hard to go through. I dread Wednesdays because I know it means more doctors, more needles and more chemo.
So, how am I going to say that mental health struggles can’t be compared to cancer? How am I going to say that it’s not easier to deal with mental health than it is to deal with cancer, when I’m claiming cancer is so awful? I’m going to say those things easily. Because as I mentioned, the two can’t be adequately compared to find out which is “worse.” However, I’m still sick of hearing about how mental health patients have no idea what it’s like to be severely sick, because some of us do. The struggles we face are completely different, I’ll give you that, but mental health can make you just as miserable. I promise.
For example, the nice thing about chemo (if there is a “nice” thing) is that it’s fairly predictable. I know what day I’m getting my infusion, I know how long it’ll take, I know what side effects to expect, and I’m prepared. I have my Claritin for bone pain and anti-nausea medications ready. I know what signs to look for that indicate I need to go to an emergency room. Overall, I know what to expect out of treatment and my diagnosis.
With my mental health issues, that’s not the case at all. I can go through weeks of being perfectly stable, then be hospitalized because an episode hit me out of nowhere. And the hard part is, I don’t know when to go to the hospital, and neither does my family most of the time. It’s a hard judgment call to decide what warrants being evaluated for inpatient care in the psych ward.
Additionally, with my type of cancer, I’ll go through stages of remission, like everyone else. So, while follicular lymphoma is ultimately incurable, I’ll at least enjoy stages where all I need is a PET scan every few months. Of course, I’ll have anxiety and cancer-related mental health issues, but I won’t be going through chemo the whole time.
I don’t quite get to have those breaks with my mental health. Being bipolar means that even when I’m stable, I’m constantly monitoring myself for mood symptoms. If I’m sad, am I depressed? If I’m happy, am I manic? There’s no such thing as being content with my emotions. I have to second-guess everything I feel.
Similarly, with PTSD, trauma triggers usually arise unexpectedly, sending me into severe panic attacks that are often embarrassing and in public places. And don’t even get me started on psychosis. While I’m rarely psychotic, and it can be managed, there are days where I’m detached from reality and can’t cope with what are seemingly the smallest things. For example, a couple days ago, I saw a picture on Twitter with stickers all over the dashboard of a car and started sobbing because the picture was “too loud” and my brain couldn’t adequately process all of that stimulation on top of the psychosis I was experiencing. Now I look at that same picture and think it looks kind of cool. But last Saturday at 10 pm, it sent me into a full blown crisis.
What I’m trying to say is these illnesses are so different. Would I rather go to a cancer center, be poked with countless needles, get multiple biopsies and be stuck with chemo, or would I rather deal with the continuous effects of my mental health struggles and be hospitalized with a boatload of restricted things I can’t have access to? My preference doesn’t really matter, but even if it did, I couldn’t answer. Because everyone knows cancer is this big bad diagnosis, but mental health diagnoses can be too. They both impair my life drastically, and I can’t pick one over the other to get rid of.
Because what the media doesn’t tell you is how terrifying psychosis is. It doesn’t tell you how dangerous mania can be. It doesn’t show you realistic images of psychiatric hospitals, and it doesn’t share the stories about patients who have been in those hospitals multiple times.
So, yes. I have cancer. I also have various mental health conditions. But I’ve learned that I can’t adequately compare the two to determine which is the “better” diagnosis. And I shouldn’t feel guilty for moments where I wish I only had one condition over the other. Because there are definitely moments where I wish I was only bipolar. Then, there are moments where I wish I only had cancer. Because both are a lot to deal with on their own and come with their unique struggles. It really is like comparing apples and oranges.
So I know it’s easy for both ends of the spectrum to say, “If I had a mental illness things would be easier,” or “If I had a physical illness, things would be easier.” I’m here to break the news to you that they probably wouldn’t be. Both types of illnesses are struggles I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. And I think it’s time we stop glorifying both ends of the spectrum and remember the grass is always greener on the other side. So no matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, just remember that your viewpoint might shift if you saw the other side’s perspective, too.
Photo by Havilah Galaxy on Unsplash