Rosalynn Carter has long been an advocate for stigma reduction in the field of mental health. She wants the “walls of secrecy and shame” around mental health issues to tumble, in much the same way as they have for breast cancer.
Rebecca Palpant Shimkets’ mental health career has spanned almost two decades, with much of that time working with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism; so, her career goals include accurate portrayal of mental illnesses in the media, stigma reduction, and social inclusion.
Her personal and professional life touched each other as she learned the hard way of the link between cancer and clinical depression. Ironically, it came after her thyroid cancer treatment was completed, a time when society expected her to be celebrating and stepping back into life with new vigor and appreciation for each day. Instead, she found herself walking through days and months of reflecting on the pain and suffering experienced during treatment and seeking answers to the meaning of her existence.
She learned that she was not alone: over a cup of coffee with friends or colleagues, and in checking National Cancer Institute studies, which estimated 15-25 percent of cancer patients experiencing co-morbid depression. Today, she speaks to cancer survivors and professionals, sharing her experience, and encouraging people to recognize the signs of depression and address the symptoms with treatment.
Rebecca’s cancer journey started when she was only 29 years old. Her primary care provider diagnosed thyroid cancer, but assured her there was a well-established treatment protocol with high success rate and minimal chance of recurrence. After a battle with her insurance company over treatment, she was able to follow the recommended treatment and move on with her life. But, unfortunately, the road ahead was not that smooth. Only 5 years later, at age 34, she had a recurrence and suddenly didn’t fit the treatment protocols.
After months of testing, she felt no progress was being made in formulating a treatment plan. In fact, one provider actually thought it wise to let the cancer grow for several months and then revisit treatment options. Others proposed drastic and expensive measures, though the chances for success were minimal. Fate took over when Rebecca’s sister was flying in rural Wisconsin and sat next to a physician from the Mayo Clinic who was involved in the development of a cutting-edge treatment for Rebecca’s exact condition.
Arrangements were made for her inclusion in the treatment process, and within 12 hours of arrival, her testing was complete and the medical team gathered to give her a full diagnosis and a much less invasive and more promising treatment plan. She once again experienced issues with her insurance company, but lived to tell the tale.
Today, Palpant Shimkets is focusing her career and energy on championing services and supports for survivors and their caregivers including encouraging ongoing screening post-cancer treatment for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her work with Georgia CORE and the PCORI Patnership has inspired her to do more in this field. Today, married and with step-children, Rebecca leads a full life. She uses her cancer journey as motivation to encourage reform in the health care system that “drops recovered survivors at the curb.” She hopes to encourage collaboration and recognition of survivors mental health needs post-treatment and years into survivorship; more rapid acceptance of research findings to benefit patient care; and increased research into the health needs of young adult cancer survivors.
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