September 5th, 2018
| Survivor: Testicular Cancer
Trigger Warning: This article contains writing that may be triggering to those who have experienced suicidal thoughts.
One thing I did not anticipate when I was diagnosed with cancer at 17 years of age was the immense impact that my diagnosis would have on my mental health. To have been diagnosed at such a pivotal time in my life was extremely difficult for me to accept. I was just four months from completing my final high school exams and six months shy from graduating high school. As I was known for being a high-spirited 17-year-old, the last thing I ever wanted to do was to bring down the mood around my friends or my family by talking about all the anxiety I had as a result of my diagnosis, such as how I would be able to pass my final high school exams and whether I would even be healthy enough to graduate high school at all. So, I largely kept these feelings to myself.
At the time, I believed that the responsibility of my mental health was something I needed to shoulder alone. It was the only way to prevent my loved ones from experiencing even more heartache and worry about my health. But by keeping my anxiety to myself, I began to become distant from my friends and family. I was building up so much anxiety inside that I no longer had the energy, physically or mentally, to spend time with them as much as I used to. No more nights out with all the boys. No more quality time with my family on the weekends.
By keeping my anxiety to myself, I also began to experience suicidal thoughts and engage in self-harm. Underneath the high-spirited nature I was known for, and tried so hard to keep even after I was diagnosed, was an overwhelming sense of self-hatred. I could see that my diagnosis was causing an emotional strain on my family and friends and felt deeply responsible. I resented myself for being the cause of their worries. I also questioned the value that my life had after being diagnosed; after all, I was diagnosed during what I felt was the prime of my life - I was just 17 years of age and on the cusp of new and exciting adventures. It was difficult for me to see how my life could ever feel rewarding again. My suicidal thoughts escalated to the point where I believed that if cancer was not going to end my life, I was prepared to do it first.
My family and friends never left my side despite how distant I became towards them. Rather, their love, compassion and care for me strengthened tenfold. I viewed myself as such a burden in their lives that I would often deny their attempts to help me cope but thankfully, my family and friends persisted. They never lost faith in me.
It took one conversation with my high school best friend, Brock, to completely change how I viewed my life. We were walking home from school one afternoon when he prompted the conversation between us with one simple but direct question: Are you okay?
The question stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t lie to my best friend. After all, Brock was incredibly supportive when I first informed him of my diagnosis. However, now that I was experiencing significant challenges to my mental health as a result, I was anxious that he wouldn’t be as receptive.
I didn’t have the courage to respond at first so Brock encouraged me to step off the footpath to avoid the wave of fellow school kids trying to beat the rush home. I took a deep breath before telling him that I wasn’t okay. I described how my diagnosis had in fact triggered suicidal thoughts to the point that I had begun to self-harm.
Without missing a beat, Brock placed both his hands on my shoulder before responding, his words layered in the kindness and comfort he was known for:
"Adry, you are my classmate, my best friend and I love you like a brother. You are allowed to be happy. You deserve to be happy!
I’ll always be here for you."
To hear Brock say that I was not only allowed to be happy but that I also deserved to be happy was the reassurance I needed. Even more, to hear him say that he was always going to be there for me relieved any fear I had of losing the support of those closest to me because of the state of my mental health. I broke down in tears right in front of him, relieved that I was finally able to speak openly and honestly to someone I trusted about how I was coping with my diagnosis.
It was a simple yet direct question from my best friend that changed how I viewed my life. The reassurance I received from Brock helped me believe that I was not a burden to my friends or family, and that it was okay to speak up and be honest and open about my mental health to people I trusted. Not only did it change how I viewed my life, I believe it also saved my life. After my conversation with Brock, I completely stopped self-harming and very rarely experienced suicidal thoughts.
If there’s one thing I learned from my experience coping with cancer is that the emotional impact it causes can often take a lot longer to recover from than its physical impact. However, after my conversation with Brock on that fateful afternoon walking home from school, I realised that you don’t need to travel on the path to recovery alone.
This year on World Suicide Prevention Day, and every day for that matter, I encourage you to be proactive about your mental health. If you’re going through a difficult time, give yourself permission to be open and honest with your feelings and consider the steps you might take to receive support, whether from a trusted family member, friend or a professional. If you recognise that someone close to you hasn’t been acting like themselves lately, then make sure you take action and reach out to them. Listen to what they have to say and help chart a path for them to receive further support. Don’t shame them when they open up to you but inspire them and instill them a sense of comfort and reassurance like Brock had done for me.
If we all make a conscious effort to bring out the best in each other but most of all be there for each other when we’re not quite at our best then together, we can break down the stigma that surrounds mental health so that no one will have to suffer in silence or feel alone.
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Adry Awan is 21 years old and currently completing his final year of a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of New South Wales, majoring in Media, Culture and Technology. In addition to his studies, he is a youth mental health advocate for many mental health organisations such as headspace Australia, batyr, reachout.com Australia and The Black Dog Institute.