The pandemic is having a mental effect on us all, and especially those already dealing with health issues. This Mental Health Awareness Week we're talking openly about how a cancer diagnosis can impact your mental wellbeing, and what you can do to look after yourself and others during lockdown.

20 May 2020

For Mental Health Awareness Week we spoke to men about how a prostate cancer diagnosis affected their mental health, how they’re currently coping with lockdown and what they do to boost their mood when things get tough. The main lesson: talk, unsurprisingly. 

John 

John's dad, Jurg, died from metastatic prostate cancer in 2016, totally changing his outlook on life. 

How did you feel when your father was diagnosed?

Frightened, angry, helpless. I won’t hold back and tell you I was being strong through all this. From non-stop crying to despair to shaking with fear every time the phone went, and those visits to the Royal Marsden. I also suffered PTSD and nightmares. 

As a family we never gave up. We never accepted ‘our lot’ and searched continually for alternatives. We exhausted every avenue before we realised he was diagnosed far too late. The hardest thing is to appear positive, offer hope. Our family talked, always, whatever time of day, we discussed things openly and aired our opinions and emotions. We gained strength from our communication and grew closer as a result. One way I coped was to know all there was to know about his cancer. Somehow the knowledge comforted me, it gave me a focus and the improved understanding made me less fearful. Running also helped channel my inner anger and calm my thoughts. 

Men try so hard to brush off the emotional side but we’re social beings and thus have feelings we just can’t turn off.

- John

 

What advice do you have for other people who might be in a similar situation? Especially around mental health?

Be honest about your feelings. That old adage ‘a problem aired is a problem shared’ best describes my experience. Never bottle it up. Men try so hard to brush off the emotional side but we’re social beings and thus have feelings we just can’t turn off. Explore coping methods, to take away the pain and help you focus. Exercise can help make a positive difference. One thing that helped me was writing a story for my kids about my Dad during my bereavement, the hardest times, to explain my thoughts. Putting it down on paper was somehow therapeutic. Talk about your loved ones and they will forever be remembered.

John’s book about losing his father, The Apple Tree is available here.

 

Alec 

In December 2018, after a visit to his doctor to speak about a range of symptoms, Alec was diagnosed with prostate cancer at 63. He had hormone therapy and brachytherapy to treat his cancer and experienced side-effects such as mood swings. 

At what point did you decide to speak to someone about your mental health?

After the diagnosis I visited the hospital for an assessment and was introduced to the counselling services, but it was only after a few weeks into my hormone treatment that I began to feel depressed about what was happening to me.  

What steps did you take to improve your mental health? 

My GP could offer little under the NHS and suggested I contact a couple of charities.  A local charity, the Beechwood, in Stockport was excellent. I went along for a day a week on an eight-week programme. They provide support, counselling and therapies such as Reiki and reflexology. It really helped to see other people with cancer, to hear their stories. 

What was the most helpful thing you did to improve your mental health?

My positive attitude helps; not being afraid to talk to friends, family and strangers about how I feel and what I have gone through. Humour is one of my defences; I joke about my loss of stamina and libido!

 

How have you been feeling during lockdown? 

I’m doing OK. I work at home on a four-day week as I’m only ten months away from retirement. I actually think it has bought my wife and I closer together, being in the house 24/7. We go for walks together, read and gardening but then we may do our own thing sometimes. I’ve taken up early morning running using the NHS Couch to 5K podcasts. They’re excellent; I’m in week seven and am now running for 25 minutes continuously. 

I accept that some days it’s OK to feel down. I don’t have too many of these days but if I do, I listen to some music, play my saxophone, get out for some exercise or even just have a bit of a cry. 

What would be your advice to other men in a similar situation?

Keep talking to people. Surround yourself with positive people and ideas. Do take up offers of help and don’t bottle it up. On the Beechwood charity programme I was the only man with seven women, what an opportunity some men are missing.

Ask lots of questions, find out all you can about the ‘enemy within’ and work with your body to combat it. Follow advice. Eat well and sensibly, sleep plenty and get fresh air each day. Talk to anyone and spread the word; talk to your GP if you have any symptoms or you're concerned about your risk of prostate cancer. Try not to be afraid or ashamed, early treatment has saved my life and it might save that of the next man you tell about it.

Andrew 

Andrew was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer aged 48. He’s determined to continue his love of cycling and exercise. Andy has benefited from speaking to a counsellor recently.

How did you feel when you were diagnosed? What was your initial reaction? 

Total shock. I had the initial biopsy and had to wait for the results. I had a look at some information about prostate cancer on the internet but wasn't too bothered, it won't happen to me. But the first statement the urologist made was "The first thing that I am going to say to you Mr and Mrs Phillips is that myself and my team will be working with you to get you through your diagnosis and treatment", your heart sinks as your world is now just about to be blown apart, I really do have prostate cancer and it’s advanced and aggressive. The worst stage in the cancer journey was being told that the cancer had spread and now had bone metastasis. We went away from this appointment so scared and just hugged each other and cried in the car.

At what point did you decide to speak to someone about your mental health? 

After a radical prostatectomy and seven weeks of radiotherapy I’d moved to blood checks every three months. Before a blood check I'd become quiet and didn't interact as much. My wife Carol noticed and dragged me to the GP to discuss what was going on. She did most of the talking. I refused all medication but did a self-referral to the NHS Mental Health Team. Two weeks later my oncologist asked how I was doing "OK" I replied, to which my wife said "that's not totally true is it?" Carol explained what was going on and my oncologist recommended a counsellor. I always thought that mental issues were something that you could snap out of and get on with life, but here I was at the bottom of a pit and unable to climb out of it. How wrong had I been for so many years?

Mindfulness has been the single most important course that I’ve done during my cancer journey.

- Andrew

 

I’ve been a senior maintenance supervisor on oil and gas platforms. If there were signs of deterioration with the equipment we would monitor and keep it stable and put plans together to perform a repair to return it to fully operational service. My oncologist turned a lot of aspects of my mental health problems into engineering terms that I could grasp, saying "unfortunately the human body is not a piece of machinery and does not follow logical rules."

I enrolled on the eight-week mindfulness course at Maggie's Cancer Centre in Nottingham. The first few weeks were strange but after that I really got into the flow. It’s been the single most important course that I’ve done during my cancer journey. I’m also a keen cyclist. I know that if I don't regularly exercise this can make a massive difference to my mental health.

How have you been feeling during lockdown?

I’ve not been struggling with the lockdown at all. My wife has MS and she has been put on the vulnerable list, I haven't. We have all our shopping delivered so we don't have to go out. We’re in a group of awesome friends. If anybody is getting a delivery or going for food we let each other know. We live in a village so we’re able to walk our three German Shepherds in the countryside. We also have a big garden and we’re preparing this year’s vegetable crop. I’ve learnt how to live in the present and not create a future that doesn't exist, so the uncertainty of the lockdown has not worried me. The only thing I really miss is going to rock concerts!

Whether you've been diagnosed or have concerns about prostate cancer, our Specialist Nurses are here to support you by phone, email or live chat. We can also help partners, family members, friends, and health professionals with any questions you may have. Get support now.

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