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Life at the intersection of health and mental health: Naked and afraid

December 24, 2013
by Sue Bergeson
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the question you have to live with after a breast cancer diagnosis and for a while post-surgery is "how bad is it?" I was lucky enough to have surgery for my breast cancer within six weeks of diagnosis and was lucky enough to see my breast cancer surgeon a week later. (I realize many people do not have access to providers and care as quickly depending on where they live and what systems are available.) This is the visit where I was finally going to learn "how bad it is."

The visit did not go well. 

As a person living in recovery with mental illness, I have learned strategies I use when I am anxious and when I need to cope with adversity. These strategies have been very helpful to me in this new breast and uterine cancer journey. I have used them to cope with my diagnosis, to manage after my surgeries, to move forward against the fear. I have no idea if these blogs sound ”whiney” to you as you read them, but most people in my life tell me they think I am coping pretty well, maintaining a demanding (ok very, very demanding) job in the face of  a couple of difficult illnesses and staying fairly emotionally stable at the same time. But there is no question that I have been waiting anxiously with a great deal of fear for the post-surgical appointment when I would find out “how bad it is.”  

I had been wondering for six weeks: Is it worse than predicted? Are my lymph nodes involved? Is it spreading? Will I need to go through chemo? Am I going to be able to keep my job or is the impact of radiation (the exhaustion and other side effects) and chemo (the nausea, exhaustion and other side effects) going to make it impossible to stay employed? Will I die soon? And if I get super bad news am I going to be strong enough to maintain my mental health or am I going to spiral down? I have been using my coping skills and living in the moment knowing that I could not begin to address any of these questions until this post-surgical visit.  

The day of my post-surgical visit finally arrived. My 85-year-old parents who are extremely worried about me and who both live with their own medical issues joined me for the appointment. They wanted and needed to be there. I was ushered into the examination room, instructed to remove my clothing and put on the paper gown. I am now (mostly) naked and afraid ………and waiting.

And I waited. And waited. After about 20 minutes I started to think, "Oh goodness, the news is so bad the doctor is doing extra research.” Then, “Oh goodness, he is avoiding me because the news is so bad.” After about 30 minutes a very, very young  tech popped her head in the room and told me that my doctor was called into an emergency colonoscopy next door and would be delayed a bit.

Really, a colonoscopy is an emergency?

So for the next hour i am working all my coping strategies. I have been sending compassionate positive thoughts to whoever he is serving. I am staying in the moment. I am doing some mindfulness mediation.  Breathing work. Really, anything I can think of.

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As a physician, an apology from my field. I hope you will recover from the cancer and that the doctor will still help despite his poor "bedside manner". Maybe we can't expect much more nowadays. I just read this morning an article in the Wall Street Journal discussing the death of the "bedside manner" in medicine, in part due to all the unfortunate changes surrounding medicine. Nevertheless, your "telling like it is" is a stimulus to do better.

Steve Moffic

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Sue Bergeson

Serves as the Vice President of Consumer and Family Affairs for a large managed care company

@@BergesonSue

Sue Bergeson is a behavioral health consumer and a family member of behavioral health consumers...