3 things mental illness and cancer share in common

 In commemoration of World Cancer Day 2017

Don’t miss the great cancer infographic at the end of this post!

The first time someone I knew had cancer, I didn’t even know that was what it was. I was not yet 10, and all I knew that my close friend had lost his father over the course of a protracted illness to something called “leukaemia.” It was many more years before I would learn it was a cancer of blood cells. By then I’d seen other people lose their lives to other kinds of cancer: a friend of my parents’, a Sunday school teacher, a number of patients.

But although I went into mental health and not oncology, I soon realised there were some similarities between both, and today being World Cancer Day (February 4), got me reflecting on three things both have in common.

1. Mental illness and cancer are often treated like they’re one thing.

Ever noticed how people tell you, “So-and-so has got cancer?”

I don’t know about you, but I just can’t deal. Newsflash, everyone: nobody simply gets cancer. People get cancer of something. It’s like telling people you ate food? Or saying, “Hey guys, I have clothes!” If you stopped there, someone would be sure to ask you what food, or what clothes.

It would be bad enough that this happens colloquially, but I’ve seen newspaper reports (at least in Nigeria) in which someone was simply said to have “cancer” and the writer moved on like that was all that needed to be said. Not even, “It’s not clear at this time what cancer so-and-so had.”

That’s not okay, okay?

I’ve written before about how thinking mental illness is one thing is like white people thinking Africa is one country, or southern Nigerians thinking every northerner is Hausa and Muslim. The same unfortunately applies to cancer. And in all of them, the problem is the same: the potentially harmful stereotyping in which we judge an entire group by the worst of the group.

And speaking of stereotyping…

2. Mental illness and cancer are often both considered terminal.

The other problem both mental illness (of whichever kind) and cancer (of whatever body part) face is how, when people find that they or someone they care about has either, the typical feeling is that their life is over. The prospect of having either is terrifying to many people.

And this isn’t about the fact that many kinds of cancer do lead to death (although, thankfully, we’re both learning to diagnose them more quickly and developing more and more treatment options). I’m talking about the death of the one thing that makes life meaningful: hope.

A diagnosis of cancer or mental illness is life-changing.

But “life-changing” is not the same as “life-ending.”

Not even if, as with cancer, it does end the person’s life.

[bctt tweet=”A cancer or mental illness diagnosis is life-changing. But life-changing is not equal to life-ending.” username=”DocAyomide”]

Which brings me to a third thing…

3. In both mental illness and cancer, people often forget to focus on actually living.

I’ve seen lots of people, after being diagnosed with either a mental illness or a kind of cancer, spend years running after all kinds of solutions and “miracle” cures, and who only discover the “miracle” of dramatically depleted funds.

But the money these people lose (and you wouldn’t believe how much “miracles” cost) isn’t the worst thing.

The worst thing is the life they lose.

In the face of these diagnoses, these people are putting their lives on hold, which would make sense if the illnesses were short-term, but for an illness that can last years? Putting life on hold for long-term health conditions is almost literally suicidal. I try to remind everyone I can: “Don’t let the sickness take over your life any more than it absolutely has to.”

Even if death is imminent, it’s still possible to live as fully as you can. But it only happens when you live with intention. And that’s a fight, I assure you.

But it’s totally a worthy fight.

Like the theme of this year’s World Cancer Day states: “We can. I can.”


The infographic for this year’s World Cancer Day (Source). Feel free to share.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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