Living with cancer (even post diagnosis, treatment, and in remission, once you’ve had cancer, you’re always living with it) is weird. One minute I’m going about my day and not thinking about my body, my janky scars, and what’s left of my boobs (which I’m soooooooooo grateful to still have). Then, at strange, random moments, I’ll suddenly stop and think, “Fuck, I had cancer! I might still have cancer. What if it’s still there? What if it’s hiding out in my body and lurking, getting ready to say ‘Boo!’ two, five, ten, twenty years down the road?”
That shit will keep you up at night, give you panic attacks, make you hypervigilant (i.e. your lizard brain starts looking for threats around every corner), and make you tough to live with – even for you. I’d been down that road before with two bouts of postpartum depression (PPD) after the birth of each of my children. I recognized the symptoms once I slowed down and stopped using my favorite unhealthy coping mechanism – avoidance. Shortly after my diagnosis, I worked to the point of exhaustion in the lab, at home, and on my side gig, staying up late in the name of productivity and maximizing creativity, but I wasn’t fooling anyone.
I was fucking terrified.
After a year and a half of ups and downs – with a short stint of therapy before I learned I wouldn’t need chemotherapy – I gave myself a cosmic kick in the ass, acknowledged that I was not fine, and that I needed help. I’d tried using the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques I’d learned while in treatment for PPD, and I’ve been on anti-depressant medication for years (and make no apologies for it – if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, store bought is fine), but I was still losing sleep and spending so much time worrying about if/when the cancer might come back that I wasn’t fully enjoying the life I was lucky to have.
I stopped, took a deep breath, and (finally) pondered what I’d been through with cancer – the shock and terror of the diagnosis; the fog of uncertainty while waiting for pathology reports, blood work; weighing the pros and cons of each surgical options; the needles for biopsies and implantation of SAVI SCOUT devices; waking up to a new body after surgery; finding out I had a positive lymph node; the burn of that tender healing flesh during and after radiation therapy; the indignities of hormone suppression therapy; loss of time with family, loss of work, loss of my life as I knew it and coming to terms with a new life.
I was alive, I’d been able to skip chemotherapy, and my prognosis was great, and yet, I was still broken. Looking at the list from above, it seems like a no-brainer. Of COURSE I was broken. But my biggest blindspot was and is me. It took a while, but I finally understood that I couldn’t process this on my own. I needed help so I could be the best version of myself for my family, my friends, my colleagues, my community, and myself.
So I got myself back in therapy, got a refresher on CBT along with adding mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises beyond the standard inhale for four beats and exhale for four beats to stave off anxiety (inhaling for four beats and exhaling for seven worked wonders for my sleep cycle), and the COOOLEST of all new (to me) techniques – postponed worrying! This has been a game-changer for me. I’m a scheduler – working mom with two side gigs and a husband who’s out of town half the week. I’m also a worrier. The simple act of taking time to sit down and devote my attention to my worries (writing them down and, using CBT techniques, identifying and fighting cognitive distortions) for a set amount of time has helped me NOT dwell on those worries for the rest of the day.
There are no downsides to taking care of your mental health, and plenty of benefits. The best part? In addition to helping you live your best, quality life, taking care of your mental health can be beneficial to outcomes like decreased recurrence and longer survival. References here and here.
Will there still be hard days? Absolutely. And it’s okay to go down into the well of despair. What therapy can do is give you the tools you need to climb out of that well and get back to your regularly scheduled life.
Looking for mental health care resources, or maybe support groups? Here are some places to start: American Cancer Society, American Association for Cancer Research, Susan G. Komen, Cancer Support Helpline. Gilda’s Club is also a fantastic resource for cancer patients, survivors, and their families!
Special note – this post is by no means an endorsement of “the power of positive thinking” and toxic positivity (that’s a thing – people who tell you to just shut out natural, negative emotions associated with trauma are dickwagons and you should walk away from them. You have to process your emotions in a healthy way).