As the Chief Executive of a cancer charity I keep a close eye on any news that can affect our Centre visitors, but I don't have to have to look very hard. Cancer is a topic that is constantly in the media, whether it be for people's controversial personal opinions, research into what causes and prevents it, or new drugs and medical trials. Cancer is something that causes a huge level of uncertainty for those that are living with it and constant news stories around its many causes can have a profound psychological effect on people living with cancer.
In Maggie's Centres we see many people coming in looking for practical advice on subjects such as benefits and nutrition but we also speak to a huge amount of people who are struggling with the emotional impact that a cancer diagnosis has had on them. Even at the beginning of my career as an NHS nurse at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh I saw a range of different people, from all walks of life, all with different types of cancer, feeling the same emotions.
A question I heard a lot back then and I still hear now from Centre visitors is 'could I have done anything to prevent it?' Many of these people also end up with a feeling of guilt, thanks to all the news stories about causes that lead them to think they are to blame for their cancer, which coupled with the fear of their diagnosis does not help them on their recovery journey.
Cancer catapults people into the unknown and causes them a huge psychological struggle. Even with all of the information that the oncologists are able to offer there will always be 'what ifs' with cancer, from 'what if I'd lived a different lifestyle' to 'what if this treatment doesn't work'. It is also one of the only health issues that has so many possible causes and so many different outcomes.
Interestingly another pattern we often see is people who come to our cancer support groups for cancers, such as head and neck, and lung, avoiding telling people about their type of cancer as they don't want to be judged by their peers, doctors and society for their lifestyle choices like smoking.
Sometimes there is nothing that people can do to avoid cancer; it is a mutation of cells that can be caused from a limitless number of factors, including genetic make-up. This is rarely the story that is told through the media who like a message around human error, not chance.
However, even when lifestyle choices have led to a cancer diagnosis, placing that guilt onto a person who is going through such a difficult experience is unhelpful to their recovery to say the least. Many people with cancer are dealing with low mood and loss of confidence so find it difficult to summon psychological strength to ignore blameful media stories and feel somehow accused for what is happening to them.
This can often lead to a seemingly perverse refusal to adopt a lifestyle change following their cancer diagnosis even though it will help their treatment be more effective (e.g. giving up smoking) or for some cancers reduce their chance of recurrence. In fact that person can become entangled in guilt or self pity and find a need to seek refuge and escapism in things like alcohol or over eating.
Of course, at Maggie's we want people to live the healthiest lives they can and not to add to their risk of cancer, but we also care for the people who already have cancer and who are trying to find their way through it all with questions, concerns and a lot of fear. The last thing people with cancer need adding to their list of emotions is guilt. At Maggie's we stand apart from judgement and our main concern is helping people find their way through cancer both practically and often more importantly, emotionally.
My hope is that media portrayal becomes more educational, enabling and less blameful in the future.