I was curiously reluctant to have therapy when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer at age 39. I say ‘curiously’ as I refer people to talking therapy all the time in my work as a GP. I see its benefits – it works. Yet I didn’t want to go, not because I was worried about stigma or taboo, or concerned that it wouldn’t help. I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to be a cancer patient and I didn’t want to talk about cancer all the time. Of course, that seems rather ridiculous now – I was a cancer patient and I was talking about cancer all the time, whether or not I wanted to be.

My diagnosis of bowel cancer was out of the blue. No one was looking for a cancer and it was as much of a surprise to my medical team as to me. And then things happen so very quickly, because time is indeed of the essence when it comes to cancer treatment, and I found myself in hospital having major surgery, with an ICU stay, within a week of my diagnosis. There is no time to process, no time to think, and I put my energy into preparing my three young children, and practical things like filling the freezer.

After overcoming my reluctance, I started therapy within a couple of months of my diagnosis, and during my first session I barely let the therapist get a word in edgeways. She maybe spoke three or four sentences the entire session, as the words streamed out of my mouth. Like the women I see postnatally who have a need to tell their birth story, I needed to tell the story of my diagnosis and everything that had happened since. In my early sessions, I told it over and over.

I have wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember, because I want to help and care for people – a cliché, but the truth. But I don’t just help and care as a doctor; I do so as a mother, a wife, a friend, a charity ambassador and more. Therapy showed me that I have to also look after me and, importantly, that it is vital – not selfish – for me to do so.

Contrary to the advice to go to hospital appointments with a loved one, I chose to go on my own, because I wanted to absorb the information and begin to deal with it for myself before I had to deal with someone else’s reactions. I struggled with other people’s emotions throughout the whole of my treatment, and it meant that sometimes I couldn’t truly express my feelings. I knew people were sad that I was sad, I knew they hurt that I hurt, so I couldn’t keep hurting them more. I also struggled with people’s need for me to be positive, telling me I was strong and brave, reminding me that I was halfway through chemo. I felt their need and didn’t know how to separate that from my own.

But therapy was – and still is – my space, both literally and figuratively (although the literal bit got harder when doing it on the phone, hiding in the bedroom from the kids during lockdowns); a space where my feelings are simply allowed and held, be they rage, sadness or pain. It is a place where there are no expectations or judgments made; a place to be held emotionally; a place to allow that release of the flood of feelings that I worry overwhelms others, and a place to be seen simply as myself and not all the roles I play and responsibilities I have.

A safe place – that is what therapy now means to me: a place to heal my mind as I heal my body. With cancer, I never felt safe; in fact, even having just had my first set of negative scans and scopes, I do not feel able to trust that I am safe as yet, but for that session, once a week, my mind is safe.

Listen to Therapy Today editor Sally Brown talking to Philippa about what cancer patients need from therapy.

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