I started drafting this blog post before I knew May was National Mental Health Awareness month. There must be something cosmic about my urge to chime in on the topic.
Last week I met with my oncologist for the first time since finishing chemo back in September. It’s hard to believe that seven months have gone by without my weekly check-ins and monitoring. I’d been nervous about this appointment for a while, but I honestly didn’t expect the wave of extreme anxiety that came over me just walking into the cancer center that day. The best word to describe it was crippling. I felt like I was going to throw up or pass out while I had my blood drawn and waited for the labs to come back.
Then like an angel, in came my doctor who always, always makes me feel like the most important person she will talk to that day. She reviewed my blood work, and even called it “perfect” at one point. My counts were back to normal pre-cancer/chemo/poison injections. Praise!
I was relieved… but not convinced.
Why do we do that to ourselves? When we’re given great news – life changing news – we have the easy ability to crap on it with doubt and worry.
I’ve been having pain in my chest wall (most specifically my pec muscle) since January. The best way to describe it is like a pinch or charlie horse when I flex, pull open a heavy door or workout. It doesn’t hurt per-se… but it’s a constant reminder, and because my implants are over the muscle, I can’t massage the area like you would your calf and that charlie horse. And of course it only happens on the side where the cancer was. OF COURSE.
I’ve talked about this pain with my surgeon, my plastic surgeon, my physical therapist and other breasties, and I’ve been assured by all that it’s nothing more than a muscle strain and possibly – just what my pec will feel like from now on. After all – it was severely traumatized in surgery. But was I convinced? Nope, you bet not. Mr. Anxiety knocks loudly, even when you don’t want to hear him.
Dr. Raftery noticed my hesitation to celebrate the good news about my blood work and said wait, what’s up?
Normally, I would have said, I’m fine – doing great – things are getting back to normal. You know “the speech”. But luckily before she came in that day, my husband urged me to speak up about my anxiety and worry. He reminded me that things are NOT fine, and I’m not always doing great and that’s okay… but we needed to talk about it and figure out the options.
And so when she asked… I spewed all of the emotions and feelings I’ve had the past few months all over the room. I told her how my anxiety over recurrence constantly plagued my thoughts, how I can’t go a single day without worrying the cancer is back. How every twinge, ache or zinger sends me into a spiral of worry.
One of the things I love most about my doctors is their openness to talk about what we can do to make things better. So, after I was given a pretty obvious diagnosis of PTSD and a lot of reassurance that what I was feeling is in fact, totally normal – we made a plan.
My doctor offered solutions such as scheduling an MRI, heading back to therapy and possibly starting with an anti-depressant. We also talked through things I can do to help myself. These things include making exercise a priority, follow-through with my diet changes and holding myself accountable to treat myself with the respect I know I deserve.
I’m a big believer in the “help yourself” mentality. Basically it just means that no one else will be able to help you if you can’t help yourself first. Sure, you can follow doctors’ orders or go through the motions – but until you make the honest effort to help yourself, you’ll never get the results you are looking for.
My “help myself” moments this week included stepping out of the denial cloud and realizing I am a better person when I take care of my mental and physical health.
Struggles with mental health are a huge component that people might be a little in the dark about when it comes to cancer. Being diagnosed with PTSD post-cancer diagnosis is a relatively new idea, but it makes perfect sense. Traditionally, PTSD isa mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it, and there are more than 3 million cases in the US each year.
I think most people would consider having cancer a terrifying event. But maybe they wouldn’t consider surviving cancer terrifying. Imagine depending on reassurance from people about something really scary, and getting that reassurance every week (sometimes more) and then all of a sudden, that reassurance goes away. You’re left to fend for yourself, get back to “normal” and live up to the expectations that everything is a-okay. It’s terrifying. I’m not saying I live in constant fear, or I have no good days – that’s not true at all… but I am scared, yes.
The months post treatments, after I received my all clear, have been the hardest part of this whole ordeal by a long shot. Sure, active treatment sucked and physically I was a wreck… but I knew when it would be over with. This mental part… way harder.
My main objective in writing this is to share some insight into the constant struggle mental health can be after trauma. We need to embrace it, talk about it and make it acceptable. And if you’ve been following along for a while, you know how much I talk about being kind to other people because you have no idea what they’re going through.
Spread the love, Martha