Since the spring I have been back in touch with an old friend from University who is currently battling stage three cancer. We’ve always got along great but we now relate on a deeper level because of our shared experience. Recently, she reached out to ask how to cope with the thought that she will now and forever be anxious about getting cancer again. Despite physically recovering from numerous treatments she feels like she is suffering mentally. Like her, I too struggled with the mental storm that follows diagnosis, treatment, and continues into recovery.
During a visit shortly after my treatment ended, my psychologist kindly pointed out that I was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and that this was totally normal after a traumatic diagnosis like cancer. Normally I am not a huge fan of labelling mental illness but at that moment in time the label felt comforting, it normalized my experience.
Like my friend, my emotional outbursts peaked when I was alone. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to pull off the road because my vision blurred from welling up with tears. Or the times my husband worked late and I had to turn on guided meditations just to block out the anxious thoughts that crept into my head while trying to fall asleep. Just like how people say there is no way to prepare for having a baby, there is no way to prepare for the emotional rollercoaster you experience after cancer. Regardless of preparation I was in the thick of a mental battle and I had to try something. I experimented with many tactics to relieve my mental anguish while recovering. For starters, I wrote… a lot. I spewed my thoughts onto the page with no sense of purpose except to get them out of my head. Usually this resulted in more tears, yet writing helped manage my anxiety and sadness without burdening my already taxed support team. I filled my time with activities that demanded my presence. I joined a soccer team and when my body allowed, I played. Although I wasn’t ready to work or see patients I wanted to feel productive so I signed up for continuing education courses and threw myself into studying for pharmacy and intravenous exams. (I passed both of them, yay!) I put total trust in my cancer team, knowing that every three months their eyes would be on me and there was no way I could slip through the cracks.
Finally, I re-framed how I thought about crying and breaking down. Instead of seeing it as a sign of weakness I viewed every breakdown as an emotional necessity that would get me one step closer to feeling better.
Cancer is a real head game at any age but particularly when you’re young, healthy, and seemingly invincible. I told my friend that it took a long time for my anxiety to wane and I still have panicky moments and sad days but for the most part the intensity of these emotions has lessened. I constantly remind myself that I am healthy and even though I have more doctors in my contact list than anyone I know, my cancer phase is over. The trauma has ended. It’s time to live.