mental health

The ‘Other’ Side Effect Of Cancer

I am sure a lot of people with cancer realize that they are not the same person they were before they got that crushing diagnosis. At the time, I felt like I got hit with a bullet when those words were said. I was not capable of hearing any of the words that followed “It’s cancer.” In the next appointment, I was more prepared. My husband was there too and we both drilled the surgeon with questions. The information kept coming. As I started meeting more and more members of my healthcare team, I felt more and more equipped to handle things. I searched for firsthand accounts and what treatments people were on. I felt I was doing everything to prepare myself for the health journey. I didn’t think much about my mental health.

Once I had my surgery, I was initially staged as between 1B and 2A. There was no node involvement and I was gearing up to start chemotherapy in about a month. My treatment course was in place and I was hopeful that this would all be over in a short while. My particular cancer had other plans. It was discovered after a difficult emergency trip to the hospital and an emergency MRI, that it had already metastasized to my spine, rib and hip bones and was causing serious damage in those areas. My ribs and vertebrae fractured with simple movements. The emergency room doctor had to break the news to me of the stage 4 diagnosis as I laid in a hospital bed not being able to go to the washroom, with my best friend holding my hand. I remember asking the doctor if I am going to die and her saying, “I don’t know”, fighting back tears.

As I think back to these moments, I am reminded how traumatic each one was. At the time, I tried to deal with the trauma by informing myself of all the possible treatments and having tons of questions for the doctors. I was also pregnant so I felt I needed to hold on until the birth and just rest a lot and block out the trauma to protect my baby from the stress. Once my daughter was born, I started feeling better in my body. A lot of my physical pain disappeared. I was able to get better diagnostics of everything and I was able to receive more targeted treatment. These were all good things but I felt like an empty shell of a person. There was a war in my body that now I knew was never going to be over. I also felt that a lot of things were happening to me and I had little say.

This is where I felt I needed to reach out to other patients and mental health professionals to help me deal with this trauma. I met with the counselors at the cancer treatment centre and they recommended meditation. I started a CBT Anxiety group for expectant and new mothers. I was seeking out more social media posts and started sharing a lot more about my mental experience along with my physical experience. I cry a lot more than I used to. I mourn my old looks. I get angry much quicker. These are all feelings that need an outlet. Cancer doesn’t just mess up your body but also your core personality and mental well-being.

Through my search for support, I came upon the virtual support group at Rethink. It started during the pandemic lockdown of 2020. This seemed like a perfect place for me. Being virtual, I can easily join with an infant at home. The group is structured and each week there is a different topic being covered. I really want to stress how important structure is in a support group meeting. Without any plans to follow, it’s difficult for attendees to participate and open up. The wonderful facilitator takes us through a presentation and introduces theories and concepts in psychology geared towards dealing with the trauma of cancer. Being geared towards younger women makes each week very relevant to me. I do feel like it is an oasis for free thinking. It does help that the participants are at different levels of their treatments and, more importantly, at different levels of their mental health journey. I really do look forward to the meetings each week and I am so happy that they have continued. I make my nest of pillows and prepare to dive in each week. I wish that more women are able to participate and get as much or even more support like me. – Margaret Loniewska

Are you a young woman diagnosed with breast cancer, looking to connect with others who get it? Click here to join Rethink’s Young Women’s Network.

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