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Cancer, get out of my head!

By Michaela

When you are first diagnosed with cancer, there is always talk of symptoms. Symptoms of the disease, and symptoms of the treatment. You are informed that pleasantries like nausea, vomiting, hair loss, weight loss, and fatigue will come and go as your body “fights the good fight.” Will it be from the cancer? Or from the treatment? Regardless of its origins, you are nonetheless destined to be sick.

To make matters worse, the physical manifestations of sickness can sometimes be accompanied by a unique set of symptoms that take a toll on both the body and the mind. These include depression, anxiety, trauma, stress, and fear, to name only a few. In this way, cancer can and does manifest itself as a holistic disease, terrorizing all parts of the body.

One might assume, as I once did, that for these symptoms (both physical and mental) to go away, the cancer itself would simply have to go away. And, in retrospect, this theory makes sense. For example, a fire stops burning once it is extinguished, so shouldn’t cancer stop harming once it is in remission? Seven years ago, I firmly believed that this would be the case. Seventeen-year-old me naively thought that once my cancer had gone into remission, and once I had finished my treatments, cancer would no longer have a hold on me and that my life would continue as normal. Looking back, I applaud my teenage self for my innocent oblivion.

For the first two years following my diagnosis I was known to be strong, a fighter, never letting my diagnosis get me down. I was the one who supported others through my diagnosis, and I never let my emotions get to me. Cancer had nothing on me. What I did not know was in the summer of 2018, I would begin to experience significant health anxiety. Forget significant; it had become crippling. Now, at the onset of any cough, twinge, or unknown feeling, my mind would spin out of control into the worst-case scenario rattling off thoughts like “it was cancer, it had to be, it was back, I am going to die.”

It got bad enough that I had to avoid wearing certain clothes as the feeling of them sitting against my body, especially in areas where lymph nodes are easily felt, was enough to trigger an anxiety attack. I had gone from “cancer superhero” to a captive in cancer’s grip.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t try at least 101 ways to ease my own anxiety from breathing exercises to self-help books, podcasts, and even trying to ignore my feelings. Nothing I did could tame the anxious thoughts running laps through my mind every waking moment of the day. I felt helpless as if there was nothing I could do to get cancer out of my head. I felt as if I would live this way forever.

At this point, I had not taken into consideration that it might require intervention outside of my own efforts to finally provide some relief. It makes sense really, that mental health, much like physical health, sometimes requires more than the body’s own immune system to heal. But how could I ask for help? I had been so brave throughout my diagnosis that it felt wrong to need someone else to step in. I felt embarrassed as if surely it was only me that felt this way. But, boy, was I wrong.

Therapy. Walking into the oncology clinic is daunting enough but walking in to meet a complete stranger to whom you are about to offload all of your feelings for an hour? I was terrified. Why would anyone care enough to listen to my problems? I felt silly and out of place. It wasn’t until we started speaking that I realized it actually felt good to talk to someone about my experiences. For the first time in years, I felt like I wasn’t burdening someone with my feelings.

In these one-hour sessions, I didn’t have to be strong for anyone or myself. I could cry without feeling judged or weak. I could talk about the things that scared me like being sick, losing my hair, feeling alone, spirituality, and mortality. And, as it turns out, the more we talked, the more my depression and anxiety waivered. Eventually, my twice-per-week sessions became once a week, then once biweekly, until one day I had learned to cope with my mental health in a way that meant I could move forward without regular therapy.

In some ways, the therapy itself was just as life-changing as my cancer. Within it, I found a new version of myself — a version that accepted my weaknesses and was no longer afraid of my emotions or seeking help. Cancer would never truly be out of my head, but would rather move to occupy space in the back of my mind, leaving room for new experiences and emotions to flourish.

As you now see, my experience with cancer and its symptoms did not end “cold turkey” as I had previously imagined. For me, the mental health impacts of cancer have held a place in my life for years following the end of my treatment and still do to this day. The experience of anxiety, fear of recurrence, depression, and spiritual uncertainties have had a much deeper impact on my day-to-day life than my diagnosis itself. This being said, when I came to the realization that the sick mind deserves the same level of treatment as a sick body, I saw my life begin to return to a new normal.

After a time, I found that the white-knuckled grip my cancer once had on me had been reduced to a mere handhold. The reality has set now. Cancer, unlike a fire, does not merely disappear once extinguished; it is more like the aftermath of a fire, having demolished what once was, creating space for work to be done. However, with a strong work crew, time, and patience, what was once burnt down can be rebuilt into something new and beautiful.

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