Depression after cancer was an unexpected struggle

I’m not quite sure where to start with this post but here we go! Prior to cancer, I never really struggled with my mental health. I was lucky. And quite frankly, naive. I definitely miss those days.

My cancer diagnosis itself didn’t trigger any mental health issues. Surprisingly, I handled it quite well. I kept the mindset that it was all temporary and I just had to move through the motions, so I didn’t think too much into it. I didn’t let myself dive into the what ifs or worry too much about negative outcomes and I think that served me well during treatment. I lived in the moment, pushing through whatever came each and every day.

However, I learned that there can be a downside to that type of mindset. It comes back to bite you in the ass, or at least it did with me. I was in survival mode during treatment and that extended into survivorship, unbeknownst to me.

The first year and a half or so of survivorship, I went to 3-4 doctors appointments a week, give or take. I had neurology and physical therapy appointments for chronic and severe tension headaches that impacted my daily life. There were various other ailments that popped up where I’d see my oncologist, primary care physician, dermatologist and others to try to diagnose or manage. It felt like there wasn’t a single week where I didn’t have some type of medical issue.

And then, my mental health started to decline. Not only was I utterly exhausted from a year of cancer and a year and a half of random ailments and doctors visits, but I had a job that I loved but was particularly stressful. I was fighting an uphill battle with my physical health and an uphill battle at work, and it became too much. 

It started with crying more than normal (for me) and then turned into getting overwhelmed really easily. It progressed into getting frustrated when the smallest thing was out of my control, which was often. I am an incredibly transparent person so I hid none of this well. It affected my relationship and my work life significantly. My moods were showing at work and although I was transparent with my colleagues about my situation, it didn’t necessarily make it better. I cried in my director’s office many times – both about work and about cancer and survivorship. When I forced myself to talk about it, I couldn’t control the tears.

It was my director who first used the words survival mode with me. She pushed me to focus on myself holistically. It wasn’t enough to just not have cancer, which was my threshold at that point. I needed to be healthy. She actually convinced me to take the afternoon off one day simply so that I could search for a therapist and take that next step. I’ll forever be grateful for her guidance and caring about me the way she did.

The first therapist I found wasn’t the right fit. I honestly had no idea what to look for since I had never gone to therapy before but after a few sessions, I realized I needed something a bit more structured than what she provided. So, I went back to the drawing boards. It’s hard to find the right therapist. It takes a lot of work and I specifically wanted someone with cancer experience, a bonus for young adult cancer experience. This was important to me because it was (and is) really difficult to try to explain my experience to someone who hasn’t been through cancer themselves or with a close loved one. I’m sure that can be said of many situations, but I felt like there is a niche for cancer and I could try to find someone who has some real-life understanding of it.

A few months after I stopped seeing that first therapist, I started struggling again and felt like I really needed to step up my game to find someone new. I had just switched over to a semi-concierge primary care that my colleagues raved about (shout out to One Medical) and decided to ask my new doctor if she had any recommendations. As luck would have it, she met someone just a couple weeks prior who worked at a nonprofit cancer support center, The Smith Center for Healing and Arts. I got the referral and the stars began to align.

My first point of contact was a social worker, who was also a young adult survivor, and offered therapy to those who needed it. Check, check and check! It felt like a good fit over the phone so I started in-person sessions with her and it was just what I needed. She understood what I was going through and what I was struggling with because she had been there herself. I didn’t have to explain the isolation, exhaustion or sometimes feelings of defeat to her. That baseline level of understanding truly made a difference.

The organization also had survivor and caregiver support groups, which Ilan and I both went to a few times. It helped immensely to feel less alone in my experience and it seemed to help Ilan to understand other partners’ and caregivers’ experiences. Finally, I felt like I was on the right track to getting the help I needed.

If you or a loved one are in need of some extra support, here are some resources that may help:

Find a psychologist: https://locator.apa.org/

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255; https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/Support-Education

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