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Which is Worse, Mental or Physical Illness?

On the morning of a bone scan procedure to check to see if my cancer has come back, I’m wondering which is worse: mental illness or physical illness?

As a person who’s experienced both, I have a little bit to say on the topic. Of course, the answer to this question is highly subjective, but here goes my analysis:

I was diagnosed with bipolar illness in 1991. I was 28. For the next 24 years, I would suffer with the disease, enduring nights without sleep, terrible depressions, paranoia and, worst of all, delusions that made it difficult to exist in public places. I know I was not “normal” at this time; I was odd. Yet, despite it all, I did manage to function, holding down a part-time university teaching job, raising an autistic child, growing a freelance writing business and taking care of a home and a husband. Life with the illness was difficult, but it wasn’t impossible.

In 2011, I was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. I was astonished that not only did I have to suffer mental illness, now I had to deal with physical illness. I felt a little like Job. Just how much was God going to pile on me? But because the cancer was only stage two, it was not completely horrifying. I knew that I had a good chance of making it, of the doctors ridding the disease from my body.

To do away with the cancer, they gave me chemotherapy, radiation treatment and a double mastectomy. After all of this, I was told that I would be on an anti-cancer medicine, Tamoxifen, for ten years.

It’s now five years later. Still on the Tamoxifen. I thought I was completely cured. But something terrible has happened. About a month ago, I started having terrible back pain. I assumed it was stress. After all, I was taking care of a lot of life “stuff” with a major mental illness. I planned to call the general practitioner and have him prescribe some muscle relaxants, but I kept putting it off. I took care of the pain with over-the-counter meds, and I got used to going to bed early, pulling the covers up around my aching body and crying myself to sleep.

My mother was very worried. I love her dearly, but she is a bit of a hypochondriac. She kept insisting that I call my oncologist. She feared that the cancer had come back.

I put this call off even more. I was convinced it wasn’t cancer; it was stress that had “settled” in my back, between my shoulder blades, to be precise.

Finally, Mom nagged me so much that I made the call and set up an appointment to be checked out.

The doctor didn’t like what I told her. She said that it was possible that my mother was correct; it was possible that the cancer had returned and had gone to my bones.

I was flabbergasted. I cried in her arms.

She ordered a complete body bone scan.

And this brings us to today.

The bone scan is in approximately two hours. The doctor said it wouldn’t hurt, and that it wouldn’t make me feel claustrophobic. Cool, I can handle that. I won’t know the results for a few days; the waiting is the worst part.

I said above that I had severe mental illness symptoms for 24 years. But it’s been 25 years since 1991. So what happened in the last year with my mental illness situation?

In a word, I recovered. I appear to be growing out of my bipolar disorder. Thankfully, the delusions that had been plaguing me for years is now completely gone. I can now go out in public and not feel uncomfortable. And I stopped getting depressed. The mania also went away; I’m sleeping nine hours a night; it’s wonderful.

It’s now Thursday. I had the scan on Tuesday. It did make me feel claustrophobic, but that’s neither here nor there. I find out the results tomorrow.

Which is worse? Mental illness or physical illness?

For me, physical illness is much worse. The cancer might be back and could keep coming back again and again. But the bipolar disorder is disappearing. (The mental illness could, of course, come back with a vengeance, but I’m hoping and praying it won’t.) It’s a no-brainer.

I’m sure my situation is unique and that everyone has her own answer to this question. It’s kind of an interesting question to ponder if you find yourself having been “blessed” with both severe mental and physical illness.

Each of us suffers in her own way. For some, mental pain is much worse than physical pain. And vice versa. And for some, an illness may diminish, as my bipolar did; or it may plague a person, as my cancer might be, returning again and again.

I tell you now, I’m saying a prayer that I don’t have cancer a second time. But I’m gearing up for the worst. If I do have bone cancer, I’m going to fight it with all my might. I have an 11-year-old child to raise.

Is there an upside to all this? There is wisdom in enduring illness. That’s about all I got out of both predicaments. I’m not complaining.

Oh yes, one gains wisdom and empathy. And my faith got a lot stronger. That’s not so bad.

Which is Worse, Mental or Physical Illness?

Laura Yeager

Laura Yeager has been writing for over 35 years. Some of her favorite topics include mental health, writing, religion, parenthood, dogs, and her day-to-day life. She is a mental health writer for Her articles about writing have appeared in The Writer Magazine, The Toastmaster Magazine, and Her spiritual writing has been featured in several venues including Aleteia USA, Busted Halo, The Liguorian Magazine, Canticle Magazine and Guideposts Magazine. A graduate of The Writers' Workshop at The University of Iowa, Laura teaches writing at Kent State University and online Creative Writing at Gotham Writers' Workshop in New York.

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APA Reference
Yeager, L. (2018). Which is Worse, Mental or Physical Illness?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.