The physical and emotional toll of life after cancer

Jun 11, 2023
Prostate cancer is the most common diagnosis amongst Australian males.Source: Getty

Surviving cancer is an achievement to be celebrated, but for many, it’s also the start of a whole new life.

Behind the inspirational survival stories often lies an unspoken struggle with getting ‘back to normal’. The reality, however, is that it’s not so much about returning to regular life as much as it is about adjusting to a new one – physically and emotionally.

For men specifically, a cancer diagnosis exacerbates the already alarming rates of mental illness. Prostate cancer is the most common diagnosis amongst Australian males, affecting an estimated one in five men under the age of 85. With this diagnosis comes a 70 per cent increase in the risk of suicide, as well as an increased risk of anxiety and depression.

Unfortunately, adjusting to physical changes following cancer treatment can take a toll that lasts long after someone has entered remission. In a study of recovered cancer patients, difficulty adjusting to changes in bodily function such as irregular bowel movements, urinary and faecal incontinence, and an increased need to go to the bathroom were listed as major emotional barriers to readjustment. 

With an estimated 80 per cent of men experiencing urinary incontinence as a result of prostate cancer treatment, we can no longer afford to ignore the mental and physical challenges that can come with life after cancer.

As someone who specialises in helping customers find the right continence management products for their needs, I know first-hand just how taboo the topic of incontinence is. I have also heard time and time again from people living with incontinence just how debilitating and disruptive it can be. The stigma surrounding incontinence only compounds the devastating effect that it has on virtually every aspect of a person’s life.

According to a recent industry survey*, 78 per cent of incontinence sufferers believe the condition affects their mental health in some way. The possibility of experiencing incontinence while socialising, travelling, exercising, or being intimate with a sexual partner takes a drastic mental toll, and can lead many people to feel isolated and alone during an already difficult time.

The statistics are confronting on their own, but like many things in life, it’s not until we come face to face with the problem that we can truly understand just how difficult it can be. Upon hearing one of our customers Michael’s* story, I immediately understood that incontinence after cancer is just as much a physical hurdle as it is an emotional one.

After being diagnosed with prostate cancer and undergoing a successful prostatectomy five years ago, Michael, now 65, was still left with severe damage to his pelvic floor. Despite trying all recommended therapies and treatments, he was unable to return to full continence, forcing him to rely on pads and guards to work, exercise, and socialise. Despite being grateful for surviving his cancer diagnosis, he still struggled to come to terms with this major change to his everyday life post-treatment.

As an active and social person, this experience meant he couldn’t simply ‘get back to regular life’ following his treatment. Frequent bathroom trips, the risk of leaking, and the social taboo behind incontinence felt embarrassing and confronting, especially when it came to sourcing reliable and affordable products in supermarkets and chemists.

“I started to find that [shopping for products in store] was often inconsistent and it was so frustrating and embarrassing to have to ask staff for help. Then the supermarket brand that was working for me had become completely unavailable,” Michael said.

This lack of assistance and product availability is sadly so common for people with incontinence. In fact, almost 80 per cent of customers we surveyed noted they had never been helped when choosing the continence management products that would be best suited to their needs.

As for Michael’s experience, it wasn’t until his wife discovered they could order his continence management products online that Michael truly began to feel in control. The ability to not only access a wide range of products but also be assisted by trained product specialists took away all of the discomforts he had associated with buying incontinence products. Not to mention having them delivered in discreet packaging also helped alleviate the emotional toll.

Michael’s story is just one example of how adjusting to a new normal is just as much an emotional process as it is a physical one. Navigating the repercussions of incontinence following a battle with cancer is no easy feat, but when we provide survivors with the right support and resources it can be made far easier. 

“When I occasionally feel a bit down about my circumstances, I remind myself I no longer have cancer, and that this surgery which took my continence saved my life,” Michael said.

“Do what you need to get yourself back to your new normal.”

It might be confronting to talk about, but it’s time we face the link between cancer diagnoses and mental illness head-on. As survivors navigate changes to their bodies and minds, our role is to provide support as they journey down the road to their new normal

*Figures relate to a recent industry survey of more than 2,600 respondents conducted by ConfidenceClub.

*Name changed for privacy reasons.

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