Mens Health Week: Dealing with the shock of being diagnosed with prostate cancer

Right when you are trying to rationally work out what the cancer diagnosis means for you and what next steps you need to take, your body is sending out physical fear reactions.

Every day, 49 Aussie men are diagnosed with prostate cancer. That’s why the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia’s Walk for Him Campaign for Mens Health Week is so important. Events like these raise funds to help support awareness and early diagnosis campaigns, lobbying activities, and grants for life-saving medical research into better treatments.

It’s also important to remember that behind the stats and the fund raising, 8183 men this year have walked out of their urologist’s rooms in shock after a diagnosis of prostate cancer. As Professor Suzanne Chambers AO, a leader in the psychology of prostate cancer describes it:

“At that moment, the world seems changed. The things that you may have taken for granted are now at threat. While health care professionals and others around you may honestly express their concern and sympathy, this can be a singularly lonely and distressing time. Cancer is a threat that goes to the core of us. It is first and foremost a threat to life and survival. Cancer can also be a threat to a person’s sense of self: ‘Will I be the same as I was before, or will I be changed; less me in some way? Will I still be able to do the things that matter to me?’ Cancer can threaten a person’s relationships: ‘Will I still be loved and cared for? Will people want to be close to me?’ A diagnosis of cancer is almost always accompanied by feelings of fear, shock, anger, deep sadness and confusion.”

Helping men deal with this major life stress can make all the difference to their mental and physical health as they begin their survivorship journey. Men and their partners need a map to find the path that will take them back to a sense of ease and coping; a way to make treatment decisions they can live with; to clearly communicate their healthcare needs; to seek the right level of psychological help appropriate for them.

Suzanne developed a practical guidebook for that path through her research and clinical work with many men and their partners over more than 30 years. She called it Facing the Tiger, illustrating how a person’s mind and body react when faced with life-threatening danger — the ‘flight or ‘fight’ response that gets your body biologically to fight or run.

“Your body does this through an immediate hormonal reaction where your body pumps out adrenalin and noradrenalin that make your heart go faster, your mouth feels dry, your pupils dilate, and your gut stops working. You become poised to respond to the tiger in front of you. And while that’s all quite helpful in the face of an actual tiger, it’s not so helpful when the threat is cancer. Instead, right when you are trying to rationally work out what the cancer diagnosis means for you and what next steps you need to take, your body is sending out physical fear reactions, and the emotions that go with this are inevitably unpleasant, such as feeling sad, anxious, or afraid.”

Facing the Tiger is not a guidebook about treatment options and does not give any medical advice. Its role is to supply the specialist information and guidance that medical professionals don’t have the time or experience to. It suggests different perspectives for men and their partners on where they would like to be as they progress through their cancer journey and proven strategies to help that progress. Personal stories from men and women highlight the issues discussed and provide vivid insights into how others deal with prostate cancer. The book draws from over a decade of psycho-oncology research and practice to acknowledge that everyone’s experience of prostate cancer is their own. There is no one right or wrong way to approach this stressful time, but the right guidance is essential to finding your own way.

Facing the Tiger has the potential to ease the fear, shock, anger, deep sadness and confusion facing those over 8000 men right now, as well as the more than 8000 who will follow them in the second half of this year. It does not replace psychological therapy for those who require it, nor does it replace a simple once-off talk with a psychologist post-diagnosis or pre a first treatment round. It is designed specifically to sit within a tired model of psychological care as immediately accessible upfront support. At the cost of around $20.00 a patient, it’s an inexpensive addition to urology practices and cancer treatment centres. It’s also an easy first step to take toward embedding evidence-based psychological care into everyday prostate cancer treatment. All of Australia’s Prostate Cancer Specialist Nurses are already trained in the psychological care of men with prostate cancer by Suzanne and have their own comprehensive manual for delivering tailored interventions based on patient need and using practical strategies from Facing the Tiger.

The book is endorsed by the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, The Australia and New Zealand Urological Nurses Society and the Urological Society of Australia and New Zealand. In fact, the USANZ has told all its urologist members that Facing the Tiger represents best-practice psycho-social care and encourages them to recommend it to men and their partners facing prostate cancer. So, this Mens Health Week, if you are a health professional working to diagnose and treat men with prostate cancer why not extend your patient care now to include handing them a copy of Facing the Tiger.

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