When Breast Cancer Meets Depression

When I walked into my first therapist’s office, I was a mess — an emotional wreck. In my mind’s eye, I was indeed the saddest woman in the world. I tried to pretend I wasn’t; after all, I just completed six months of cancer treatment, and my medical prognosis was excellent. What did I have to be sad about? I survived, and there are many people who don’t receive the same outcome. I felt weak for seeking help. I’d convinced myself that I was overly emotional. But I kept the appointment, and it’s been one of the best choices I’ve made. 

In 2014, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. I endured grueling chemotherapy, targeted hormone therapy, radiation, breast surgery, and sentinel node dissection. I worked through my treatment and was the beacon of strength, courage, and grace. I made everyone around me feel at ease because I was positive all the time. I never entertained pity and rarely cried. I just pushed through, never allowing myself to feel the weight of my diagnosis. 

I completed chemotherapy and breast surgery, and I was about to begin six weeks of radiation. One morning, I tried to get out of bed, but when I woke up, my body felt like it weighed five hundred tons—I was certain an elephant had a dance party on my chest while I slept because there was an inexplicable pain when I took a breath. Additionally, there had been a nagging sadness that haunted me throughout cancer treatment. But on this morning, it felt debilitating. I searched for a psychologist hoping she could help me make sense of what was going on. When I walked into her office, I was bald, less than ninety pounds, pale, and feeling lost. About a year into treatment, she would later share that my sadness was palpable. When I sat on her couch, I couldn’t hold it in anymore; I sobbed uncontrollably. She listened attentively and helped me begin the journey towards understanding depression and what role it was playing in my life. 

After the cancer diagnosis, my world changed — forever. My therapist helped me to see that my mind, body, and soul had been through severe trauma. Unknowingly, I treated cancer as if it was just another of life’s hurdles to “suck up.” She helped me to become patient with the process, to allow myself to feel each emotion, no matter how painful, and to stop minimizing my experience. Through the process of seeking relief, I’ve learned and accepted that I’m on a journey towards wellness. This isn’t a race to a quick and happy ending, and there most certainly is no clear-cut finish line.   

Managing depression while also dealing with a physical illness or chronic condition is difficult. It’s a struggle battling physical pain and mental anguish simultaneously. Some days it’s hard to tell which hurts worse — the physical ailment or the fact that my mind is persistent in telling me that all is hopeless. 

As a breast cancer survivor, I live with the fear and anxiety of recurrence. This only provides fuel to feelings such as sadness and isolation which can be all-consuming. Additionally, society expected me to be fine. I survived. I made it. I should be on top of the world. I didn’t know how to explain to all the well-wishers that I’d been through the fire and didn’t know how to adapt to the weight of being a survivor. Making matters worse were the images that bombarded me of happy-go-lucky survivors everywhere. Browse any website geared towards cancer education, and the people are vibrant, joyful, beautiful, and healthy. Those survivors have no post-traumatic stress, ailments, pain, or anxiety — or so, I’m led to believe. 

I’m on Tamoxifen, which adds another dimension to the hurdle of feeling well. Two of the major side effects of the drug are depression and mood swings. It can also cause joint pain, leg swelling, severe headaches, and insomnia. It’s been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back, while also reducing the risk of a new cancer developing in the other breast. Like so many women, I’ve chosen to take the pill and deal with the side effects. It offers a ray of hope that we can live many more years without cancer returning. But with that decision, comes the weight of managing new issues that can exacerbate the depression. 

I’ve taken steps to manage both my physical and mental pain. Therapy allows me to share my struggles in a safe environment; I also find comfort in my faith, while meditation and yoga have enabled me to release stress and tension. On those dark days, when I feel physical and mental pain, I let the emotions flow — pretending that I’m alright is harmful. Depression doesn’t make me weak, it doesn’t make me damaged, and it certainly doesn’t define me. If anything, it’s made me more compassionate and present in my relationships. It’s given me the ability to understand in a visceral way that there are members of my village who may be fighting a battle that they haven’t shared yet. 

Even still, there are days when I can’t bear to get out of bed, I have no appetite, and I want to curl in a ball. I understand now, these are symptoms of depression, and it doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful for my survivor status. I’m still grateful, and now, I’m learning to love myself—scars and all.

Kai McGee is a writer who frequently explores parenting, her journey through breast cancer, social-justice and self-care. She is currently working on her memoir. Connect with her via Instagram @onanaturalkai

Cancer Is… is a monthly Blog where Kai McGee explores thoughts on what cancer is and is not from her lens of walking the journey as a survivor, thriver and champion for Breast Cancer awareness.

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