Psychological impact of cancer can be ‘devastating’, says Vicky Phelan

CervicalCheck activist tells conference of lack of support for persons involved and families

Vicky Phelan:   ‘I am still here and I am still looking for change,’ she told the Psychological Society of Ireland’s annual conference.   Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Vicky Phelan: ‘I am still here and I am still looking for change,’ she told the Psychological Society of Ireland’s annual conference. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

 

The psychological impact of accidents or cancer is traumatising, but there is little psychological support for the person involved and usually none for their families.

That is according to CervicalCheck activist Vicky Phelan, who told the annual conference of the Psychological Society of Ireland on Friday that prostate or gynaecological-type cancers in particular can be devastating for those involved.

Ms Phelan told the professional body for psychologists in Ireland they needed to be aware that the impact of cancer on a woman’s intimate relations can be so difficult to talk about, that many women simply do not tell counsellors – and in many cases counselling is not available anyway.

She said the strain on relations with partners can add to the stress of the disease. “In my case I was diagnosed when I was 39 and I went into menopause about three weeks later. The impact was enormous”.

When I was diagnosed I went into autopilot. It was five weeks of intensive treatment

But she said only the major hospitals in the larger cities offered therapy, and then it was just eight sessions. In Limerick and Waterford she said services such as reflexology were provided only by voluntary groups. She said most women were offered no psycho-sexual counselling to support a normal sex life. “It just doesn’t happen,” she said.

Counselling

Ms Phelan said insurance companies rarely if ever covered psychological counselling associated with a cancer diagnosis. and outside the major hospitals people were left to fund these on their own, if they could afford it. Even where the services of a psycho-oncologist were provided in the major centres, they were limited to eight sessions. she said.

“When I was diagnosed I went into autopilot. It was five weeks of intensive treatment with radiation every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and chemotherapy on Wednesday, my long day.”

Only when treatment was finished, could she process it, she said. Next there was a three-month wait for a scan to see if it had worked. “There is 100 per cent depression,” she said.

But she said the trauma can be brought about in many ways, and to family members as well as those directly affected.

‘Scraped together’

She said when her daughter was severely burned by fire as a young child, her son was just two years of age. “When he woke up in the morning his mother and sister were gone for the best part of five weeks,” but she said there was no counselling support for him unless the family “scraped together” the money to pay for it.

However, she said, “I am still here and I am still looking for change.”

Ms Phelan and Tuam mother-and-baby home historian Catherine Corless were honoured by the PSI on Friday. Both Ms Phelan and Ms Corless received citations from the society’s president Ian O’Grady.