Coping with cancer anxiety
My rock bottom started with my boyfriend’s casual observation, “I need to use up the milk.”
That innocent statement from my partner sent me into a downward spiral of rage. The kids, pathetic milk drinkers that they were, had brought on this problem. The milk’s expiration date was the final domino to fall in a long, winding series of escalating inconveniences that the kids had brought into my life, the culmination of these burdens being this impetus to cook something for no reason at all other than to use the milk.
Mind you, I love these kids (and their dad) so much that I left sunny San Diego for snowy Boston to join the family. “Whoa, Ash,” I told myself. “Don’t freak out—”
But I couldn’t reason with myself. The freakout was a nuclear meltdown, unstoppable.
The person who behaves like this is a stranger to me, and I don’t like her at all. Cancer has shown me that I’m so strong and so brave (a warrior!), and still there are times where that hard shell of strength and bravery shatters and falls in pieces to the ground, exposing my raw and ravaged core. I realize the issue isn’t the milk or the kids, and I recognize there might actually be no issue at all, but when I’m this broken, I don’t know which way is up. It’s psychological vertigo.
I’ve been cancer-free for a year now. I’m eight months removed from my reconstruction surgery, which my boyfriend and I followed with a trip to Cancun to celebrate being “done” with cancer.
But I am coming to realize that I’m never really done with cancer.
Cancer and depression
It’s hard to know whether my mental health struggles are hormonal, a result of the tamoxifen gradually tightening its grip on my body chemistry. Or maybe it’s PTSD taking hold, now that I’m out of the trenches of treatment and have time and energy to allow the realities of what I’ve been through to sink in. Maybe it’s a little of both, and a lot of other things, all adding up to rewire my brain in the way evolution has trained my body to survive.
For our ancient ancestors, anxiety was a tool that helped protect us from danger. If there were storm clouds approaching, we might feel anxious, which would prompt us to duck into a cave for shelter. If we came across a tiger in the forest, we’d definitely feel anxious and start running like hell in the other direction.
There are a lot of things in my kitchen—a lapdog, a fluffy cat, three little kids, a teenage au pair, and the kindest, sweetest, strongest, most patient man, the man who found my cancer and who has stayed by my side ever since, supporting me tirelessly through everything. There’s some milk in the fridge that needs to be used up. But there are no tigers, no matter what my brain has to say about the situation.
When cancer anxiety attacks
For us cancer survivors, it’s almost as though we’ve become so accustomed to crisis, that in those rare moments of peace, our minds rush to invent problems to fill the void. We live in fear of recurrence: a cough might be a symptom of lung metastases; a headache, a brain tumor. A date in the distant future makes me consider my mortality. I’m always on edge about something, whether it’s real or imagined. My world is full of tigers.
If cancer is our bodies betraying us, mental illness is our minds doing the same.
I hate the anxiety, and I hate that I feel powerless to stop it: I recognize I’m being unreasonable, and I wish I could change my behavior, but I can’t. At least, not on my own.
Cancer anxiety medication
After the milk, and several other incidents just like it, I learned that having a short fuse can be a symptom of depression. I started taking Lexapro, an antidepressant. It’s helped me feel more normal. Less anxiety. Less rage. Less despair. It’s as though the drug has given me a split-second to think before I tumble into an emotional kneejerk reaction, a pause where I get to choose how I’m going to respond—like the thoughtful, empathetic, functional member of society I am (damn it).
Is there a stigma surrounding anxiety and depression? It’s certainly not the first thing I’d tell a stranger in an elevator, but when mental issues are tied to cancer, people are more empathetic than you’d expect. Of course you’re struggling; you’ve been through so much.It’s as though cancer gives me a “get out of crazy free” card.
But I don’t want to feel crazy. There’s a discomfort in taking a medication, feeling better, and realizing that you are reliant on it: a feeling that you are not enough, that without it, you’re broken.
After “beating” cancer, admitting emotional weakness feels like a contradiction of the warrior mentality we survivors are conditioned to demonstrate. When treatment ends, our friends and family want us to be just fine, back to normal. That’s reasonable and fair: I want the same thing. But people who have been through this realize that the people we were before cancer are never coming back.
When I don’t know how to reconcile something, I turn to my yoga practice. There’s a concept in yoga called ahimsa. It means non-violence. Like most dogmas, it’s subject to interpretation; many apply it to their lives in the forms of vegetarianism or kindness towards others. Those are admirable pursuits, but it’s also a good idea to apply ahimsa to how we treat ourselves. Instead of cutting ourselves down for our flaws, let’s try celebrating our achievements—starting with the fact that we’re still standing after all the shit we’ve been through.
Maybe the fearful warrior isn’t such a contradiction after all. Maybe the lesson here is that it’s okay to be not fine. That there is strength in showing vulnerability. That we can acknowledge we’re terrified and keep moving forward, showing ourselves a little compassion and letting go of that harsh and self-critical narrative we’re all guilty of sometimes. Repeat after me:
We might be weary, angry, anxious, and sad, but we ARE enough.
We might be burned and bruised, cut apart and stitched back together, but we are NOT broken.
If nothing else, there is a hopeful lesson in perspective—from my rock bottom, there is nowhere to go but up.
Have you found yourself struggling with your mental health following a cancer diagnosis? Please share your experience in the comments.