Mental Health After Breast Cancer

Hello! It has been quite awhile since I have written. Over the past year and a half I’ve been focusing on my job, my health, and my relationships. Recently I was approached by the wonderful organization Living Beyond Breast Cancer who has teamed up with the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation to spotlight TNBC. I was told that I could write about anything I wanted to, which made this really difficult. I would have loved to have written about resilience and the clarity that comes after cancer (because those are both true). I couldn’t do that, though, until I had told a very vulnerable, but important, part of my story and the story of many other survivors. The part that no one else is talking about.

Please remember that mental health issues are not a choice and are very much out of the control of the person struggling. If you are a supportive person to someone who has or has had cancer, please keep an open mind and support your loved one. Stay vigilant and be aware of concerning behavior and language. Gently offer resources and never hesitate to recommend professional help.

If you are someone who has or has had cancer, you are not alone. The period after treatment can be the most isolating time because everyone heals differently and it is not often discussed. Though just as real and damaging, the mental side effects of cancer are invisible and can continue to worsen over time if not treated. Just as you would seek professional help if you felt another lump or you had a high fever that wouldn’t go away- continuous negative thoughts, endless crying, insomnia, panic attacks, and isolation need to be taken seriously. These things will not go away on their own. If you’re afraid of being put on more pills, don’t be. There are many therapeutic options you can discuss with a professional. Please reach out.

Below I will post the article and link the Living Beyond Breast Cancer blog. If you have any questions for me, I am an open book and would love to support you and educate you. Please feel free to reach out via e-mail, Facebook, or Instagram.

Living Beyond Breast Cancer Direct Link:

http://www.lbbc.org/node/7057

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As a social worker I am all too familiar with how taboo mental health is in America. I was surprised to find that as a cancer patient mental health was rarely discussed, and [that] after being declared “cancer free” it felt even more unmentionable. As a 26-year-old diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, I was encouraged to seek therapy during treatment, but never felt the need to.  I was too busy getting married, working, and building a new life with my husband. Cancer felt like a major bummer, but not something that would haunt me once I was done with treatment. While I understood why mental health services were encouraged while I was in treatment, I really wish there had been more emphasis on the importance of mental health after treatment. No one prepared me for the whiplash when it was over; I could never have imagined the way my life would change again when I was on the other side of things.

It wasn’t until things stopped spinning and the dust settled that I was able to look around and see the carnage for the first time. Things had been happening so fast that I didn’t realize the toll my illness had taken on so many parts of my life. I felt like I was suddenly surrounded by fragments of relationships that couldn’t withstand the pressures of a serious illness, a steady stream of medical bills, and a huge sense of emptiness. The humor I had used to cope with cancer thus far seemed to be sucked out of everything, and I struggled to find the positivity in anything. The impact of it all didn’t register until I had heard the words “no evidence of disease.”

It was pretty soon after being declared NED that I began to spiral. I felt like I had lost the identity of who I was before cancer and I wasn’t sure how to organize my feelings in a way that made sense to me. My emotions made me feel very unstable which presented in mood swings. I wanted to shield everyone, so I began to shut everyone out. My blog, where I had once gone to write puns about cancer, began to feel foreign because I had nothing happy to say.  I stopped hanging out with friends, returning phone calls, opening up to my husband, and going to work. I was embarrassed at how quick I was to cry and how quickly the slightest inconvenience could set me off. Things continued to get worse and finally came to a head when a co-worker passed away from breast cancer. I questioned why she was taken before me and why I was spared at all. This was all accompanied by sleepless nights, panic attacks, and bouts of nausea if I thought about anything related to treatment.

What do I do now? I didn’t recognize the person in the mirror and I didn’t recognize the person everyone kept telling me I was: “You’re a warrior,” a “fighter,” “you’re brave, resilient, and so strong.” How was I supposed to admit to these people, and admit to myself, that there were days I wished I hadn’t made it? Days when I saw my fellow cancer fighting friends picked off one by one and days when I could do nothing more than wait anxiously for the other shoe to drop? I felt like the most selfish human being on the planet.

As someone who concentrated on mental and physical health in graduate school and actually worked in a hospital with oncology patients, I was ashamed that I had never once considered that the impact of an illness only got worse once the illness was gone. I never realized that telling people that are suffering how strong they are can sometimes make them feel too weak to ask for help. I never told my patients that it’s OK to feel hopeless because I was too busy telling them how lucky they were to have survived. Struggling to admit to yourself and others that you’re unhappy after surviving an illness was harder, to, me than fighting the illness itself. If given the choice I would have gone through chemo ten times over rather than relive the first year after cancer.

A good rule of thumb is that when negative behaviors or emotions begin to affect your daily life, it’s time to get help. With the support of my loved ones I finally admitted to myself that I needed help and I sought out a local therapist. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it felt like the diagnosis made everything fall into place. It was the reason I had nightmares, the reason I had hypertension and nausea when I walked into a doctor’s office, the reason for the mood swings and the anxiety. I chose to pursue a type of therapeutic treatment specifically for PTSD, and let me tell you, it was HARD. Without getting into the details of the treatment, I had to choose a couple of the most triggering memories and replay them over and over, until I began to be desensitized to them. Within three sessions over half of my side effects had completely disappeared. These memories that once held me hostage are now times I can look back on with confidence and appreciation.

Just as everyone does not respond to treatment the same, not everyone heals the same. Some women claim they have epiphanies after cancer and never take anything for granted again. That’s not me. My cancer “battle” didn’t end the day I was declared NED. Cancer impacts me every single day whether it is an emotional trigger, a glimpse of my scarred body in the mirror, or the ongoing medical issues that I have to deal with.  If I could pass on any advice to people going through treatment or who have completed treatment, it would be this: Admitting you need help does not diminish the fact that you went through something incredibly hard and you survived. It does not make you weak, selfish, or unappreciative to suffer from survivor’s guilt, depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any other mental illness. Don’t try and hold it together for others, because eventually you will crack. If you are a parent, a spouse, a friend, or a coworker, remember that the best gift you can give to others is a whole and healthy you. Most importantly, give your mind the same love and patience you did your body when it was fighting hard for you, because your mind was fighting, too.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. If you or a loved one needs help, call 1-800-273-8255.

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4 thoughts on “Mental Health After Breast Cancer

  1. Rain says:

    I used to read your blog when I discovered it just randomly via Google. I’d forgotten to check in because life started somewhere.

    I’m so glad I subscribed. I was able to find you again using my shitty yahoo mailbox.

    I’m so happy you’re well and helping others, cancer survivors or not, gain strength and resolve from reading about you and your life.

    You’re absolutely lovely.

    Like

  2. Donna Vickers says:

    What an amazing article Maegan. It gives those who try to support friends and loved ones through a traumatic time in their life something further to think about. Fighting for your life is a journey no one would choose to go on. During any bad time in our life we are blessed to have family and friends who care about us and check on us regularly. But it’s true that after the emergency is over we tend to go back to our lives thinking all is well now. But that’s often the time the tough work begins. You’re an amazing young woman. Sharing the most intimate parts of your life to help others is beautiful and brave. You’ve opened a dialogue on a very important subject and healthcare providers should listen. Sending love.

    Like

  3. Craig says:

    Thanks for writing this. I came to your site after seeing the web address on your T-Shirt at Texas Oncology where my wife was also receiving treatment for breast cancer. We are “through it” as well but I’m still dealing with the emotional effects from those 12 months. I think she’s doing better than I am actually. I’ve had a few good counseling sessions but to be honest I still feel that daily sense of panic about “the other shoe dropping”. She’s about 19 months out from the end of treatment and I will be so grateful for the “all clear” at the 2 year mark. It’s just ridiculous how difficult a cancer diagnosis is, and you’re right about the aftermath being hard in its own way.
    Glad to see you blogging again. I wish you the very best health (both physical and mental)

    Like

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