Living With An Invisible Illness

What is it like to live with an illness no one - not even you - can see?

The pain of living with an invisible illness is beyond the scope of those who have never experienced it. It’s easy to look at someone who appears fine and assume that nothing is wrong, but it’s harder to imagine the battle going on beneath the surface. 

When I was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in 2015, my entire world was shattered. Up until my diagnosis, I had led a strong, healthy life; the worst injuries I had experienced were a few broken thumb and wrist bones from a horseback riding fall when I was 18. I had never considered cancer might be something I would have to worry about in my lifetime.

It all felt like an impossible nightmare; how could any of it be real?

Within weeks of my cancer diagnosis, I was slated for my last semester of a Bachelor of Natural Resource Protection. I had put nearly four years of hard work, tears, and a lot of money into my education, and here I was at the end.

I couldn’t stumble.

There are two choices when you know you’ve been diagnosed with something that scares you:

You can hide away at home and fall into a sort of depressed paralysis.

Or you can pick yourself up and fight for normalcy. 

Barring children, most adults who have been informed they have cancer or another kind of illness that isn’t curable save surgery and/or radiation treatments have a life for themselves already. They may have a family or a career, and neither of those things will stop for you. Time marches on and so does the world; no matter where you are or what you are going through, you have to keep up.

With an invisible illness, people, even those closest to you, still see you. There are no wounds or scars or symptoms to let them know that something in your body is wrong. You appear the same as you always have, and that makes cancer one of the most mentally exhausting challenges to overcome. 

Believe it or not, your cancer diagnosis is the easiest part of the entire experience. Living with it, whether it’s a terminal diagnosis or one with a high rate of survival, is the real challenge. You still have to live; you still have to move forward.

How do you do that? How do you overcome the demons of your diagnosis?

1. Create goals for yourself

Cancer is glaring. It’s big, bold, and terrifying. More than those things, it can’t be battled head-on. I found the best way to distract myself from the cancer invading my thyroid gland was to make goals for myself. These goals can be as simple as waking up at a certain time in the morning or as demanding as going to work.

2. Lean on your support system

There is no shame in leaning on your support system, especially during a time of personal crisis. Let’s not forget that a support system doesn’t have to be family or friends. It can be a pet or even a passion. For me, my greatest support system was my greatest passion: my writing. I knew my family and friends were behind me and would never waver, but the only thing that truly comforted me in that time of fear was my ability to write. 

3. Learn to accept help

Learn to accept help. Take a breath and say it again: 

Learn to accept help.

There will be days where it will feel like the entire world has turned its back on you. And on those days, you may not want to press on. There will also be days where you try to hide your pain to the point where it’s clearly visible. And there will also be days where, no matter how hard you try to hide it, someone close to you will know something is wrong.

When offered help in this critical time in your life, accept it. Stifle your pride, swallow your fear, and take the offered aid. Accepting help in such a time can not only save you precious energy but can also increase the bond between family and friends.

How did you overcome the demons of your diagnosis? Share in the comments below.


Photo courtesy of the author.