Brain Games: Cancer, Therapy, and Mental Health

It’s no surprise that “cancer” and “anxiety” go together like peanut butter and jelly. Perfectly paired partners. Except for cancer anxiety sandwiches don’t taste very good.

Add in the physical fallout from treatments - nausea, hair loss, pain, fatigue, insomnia - plus the stress of schlepping around to appointments, plus the actuality of your mortality…well, you’ve got the recipe for a sizzling meltdown panini.

I’ve struggled with anxiety since high school. My first panic attack happened sometime during my junior year as I walked outside. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. My heart raced. I felt like I was drowning. I rushed home and my parents calmed me down. After ruling out anything physical, they determined it was just good ol’ anxiety. Back then, I had very little to stress about. But that’s the thing about anxiety….sometimes it’s based on non-existent fears or irrational thoughts, with no basis of reality.

Over the next fifteen years, I had periods of zero panic attacks and periods of constant ones. At some point, I remember telling my brother that my head felt “messy. Chaotic. Cluttered.” He urged me to try meditation. I didn’t. I thought about maybe seeing a therapist. I didn’t. 

Fast-forward to 2017. Cancer diagnosis. When you get “the news,” you get stacks of paperwork. Booklets about the side effects of chemo, details about your type of cancer, and lists of available resources, including group therapy.

I knew I could probably use some help, but the idea of griping about my emotional baggage in front of strangers didn’t resonate with me.

So I didn’t get help. I clumsily barged through eighteen chemo sessions and a hysterectomy/ splenectomy, navigating the rocky territory to the best of my ability. (See also: wigs, costumes, jokes.) When I finally finished treatment, I thought it would be the happiest day of my life. It wasn’t. Despite the freedom of no longer necessitating chemo, I felt a very palpable sense of, “Uh, so what now?”

As the post-chemo weeks rolled on, the noise in my head got louder. Too loud. Even though the worst was now behind me, the mental burden felt heavier than before. 

How am I supposed to move on from this? What do I do now - just pray I’ll never get cancer again? Have I always been this physically unattractive? Am I on the wrong career path? How am I supposed to heal from this? How can I go back to normal? Is that even possible?

Suddenly I longed for normal people’s worries. I wanted to worry about politics and climate change and the size of my rear end, not whether cancer would come back and kill me before my fortieth birthday.

I decided to get help.

One-on-one therapy appealed to me more than a group setting. I figured I’d cry a lot, so I’d rather get weepy and emotionally sloppy in front of one person, versus ten. Plus, I wanted guidance on things outside of cancer like my career, relationship, and self-worth (or lack thereof).

I found a few dozen therapists through my insurance provider, and I got the same answer from everyone I called - they were completely booked and not accepting new patients. What?! Was the entire city of Los Angeles that emotionally unstable that NO ONE had availability?

Then I remembered a guy named Bill. We met five years prior at a cocktail mixer for UCLA/ USC/ Emerson alumni. He ran a successful therapy practice across the street from the bar. I enjoyed chatting with him. He was kind, funny, and extremely intelligent. We talked about dogs and he told me he sometimes integrates animal therapy into his practice. We swapped business cards and later connected on LinkedIn. And now, years later, on this day, after getting rejected from thirty overbooked therapists, I dug up Bill’s contact info.

I began the email with, “Hi. I doubt you remember me, but we met at that mixer and I desperately need your help...” 

He remembered me. We had a great phone consultation and agreed to meet a few days later.

I walked into my very first appointment with a mix of nerves and uncertainty. I knew very little about therapy, only small bits from what I’d seen in movies or TV. Would I lie on a couch, dissecting my childhood? Cry uncontrollably as I unpacked the trauma from the last six months? Or, the horror of horrors, would I develop a crush on him, then have to unpack THAT together?

A couple of friends told me finding a therapist can be similar to dating - sometimes you have to see a few wrong ones before finding the right one. You have to find someone you vibe with. Who makes you feel seen, heard, and understood. 

Within the first five minutes of that initial session, I knew Bill could help me. I knew he was the perfect person to mop up my psychological wreckage. I could tell he was listening with neutral compassion and without judgment.

Bill created a safe space where I could cry and scream and break down. A place where I could verbally purge. Where I felt protected and cared for. And where I could slowly, methodically piece myself back together under his guidance. A place from where I emerged a happier, healthier, stronger, better version of myself. Nearly three years later, we still meet once a week and I’ve never felt more stable, fulfilled, or self-assured. Of course, I have bad days like anyone, but the sharp rollercoaster of emotional instability has morphed into gentle, more manageable emotional slopes. 

Bill helped me identify toxic thought patterns, negative self-talk, and useless perspectives that truly held me back in life. Now I finally have the tools to identify those thoughts as they’re happening, and I can correct them. Sure, it took a new sense of awareness and a LOT of self-reflection outside of therapy (thought patterns can’t get corrected overnight), but it’s a million percent worth the effort.

I’m so thankful I have an incredible therapist. And no, I never developed a crush on him…but I do have a sense of love for him - in a purely platonic, “thank-you-for-restoring-my-mental-health-and-healing-my-demons” kind of way. 10/10 recommend.



Photo courtesy of author.