For most of my many and long cancer experiences, I was the solid ground for patients, survivors, and thrivers as they described battles with depression to me. Although I fully sympathized, I honestly never understood that they were experiencing. I couldn't relate. During my time with cancer I always had a fulfilling life outside of cancer. I had my family, friends, and my work. I put my energy into advocacy work and helping other cancer patients. I felt fine -- for years, I felt fine.
But once I realized that my cancer was chronic… that's when things weren't fine any more.
I was first diagnosed in the fall of 2012 with early stage cervical cancer. I felt many things at my diagnosis, but depression was never one of my feelings. I went through treatment and I had complications. I had to wear adult diapers at the age of 27 until additional surgery could be completed. I had bad experiences. I didn't feel depressed.
Two years later, my cancer had returned and needed to be treated -- aggressively. I worked as much as I could, spent time with my family and friends, got married. I enjoyed my life, always thinking that there would be a tomorrow when I would be cancer free. No depression in sight. In March 2015 my PET scan was clear! It was time to celebrate. No time to be depressed.
I was on vacation two months later when I got the news that my cancer had returned again. This only motivated me more to make every day count and to make memories with my young son. It was time to move into quality of life care. We started a regimen that was meant to stop the cancer from spreading or growing and followed it for twelve months. It was not depressing, it was refreshing. We had a treatment plan that I could be on until it stopped working that did not have any significant impact on my life. It was a great year.
But a little over a year later, my cancer had progressed... again. I had to go back
into aggressive treatment. This time it hit me: I was 31 and I will have cancer until I die
. Three months after that defining moment, I finally made the decision to move from working full time to not working at all and starting disability. Throughout all of my experiences this is the one that pushed me over the edge. It moved me from my normal, motivated self into depression. I can track it to that one defining moment: the moment that I no longer felt useful. I was no longer able to do what I had spent my whole life planning to do. It was then that I no longer felt like "me."
I spent two months not wanting to get out of bed, being mean to my husband and son, and just moving through the motions. The first month I didn't want any help, I didn't want my husband to talk to me. I felt like people were just talking at
me, not to me. I didn't want my husband to touch me. I didn't have the tolerance to cope with my son. I didn't want to be on social media, which is highly unusual for me. I isolated myself. I only got out of bed to go into the school I previously taught at and coach a group of students in robotics. I had no tolerance for anything else.
I could see myself falling into a pit of despair and I couldn’t do anything about it. I would lay in bed and know that I should be doing something more, anything more. I couldn't make myself do it. I felt like I should be able to pull myself out of this -- after all, I could see it happening -- but I couldn’t.
That December, I told my husband that I thought I needed to check into starting a depression medication. It was only then that he confessed he was hoping I would say that. He expressed his concerns about how I had been acting towards him and our son. He expressed concerns I never knew he had. I called the doctor the next day and he got me started on medication for depression. It took a couple of weeks, but it started to feel like a weight was being lifted off my shoulders. I could come out of my pit, little by little, and started living my life again. I started to feel like myself again.
After my struggle with depression, I realized that I had finally come to understand all the struggles that I had heard before. I have learned to truly understand these things, and I hope that if you find yourself depressed that you can take comfort in knowing them, too:
- You are not alone
- It isn't your fault
- You can’t always pull yourself out of it
- Sometimes it is bigger than you. That's when you need to help yourself and reach out to a medical professional.
I went out just before starting this new chemo regimen and I got a tattoo to commemorate the difficult time that I went through. I got a robot tattoo, in honor of my robotics students, but also in honor of the one constant I had during my deep depression, the one reason I would get out of bed: robotics.
There are still days that I struggle with depression
and find myself in my little cave, watching tv all day, but those are less and less. I schedule times with friends and family, I make memories with my son, I continue to coach robotics. I am back to living my life to the fullest and enjoying it. My advice to anyone currently going through depression: Try to lean on others, use medication if you need to, and talk a professional if needed. Life can be good after depression, don't be afraid to ask for help.
Can you trace your depression back to a specific moment in your cancer journey? Share in the comments below.
Photo courtesy of Naomi August.