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Surviving Depression and Getting Breast Cancer

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Life is full of dramatic ironies. I had spent the past four months meeting weekly with my therapist, as she tried again and again to help me see the legitimacy of depression as a chronic illness. The kind of illness that can kill you. The kind of illness that entitles you to ask for help from friends and family. “I wish you could see and understand and say out loud,” she said time and again, “you have a chronic illness that can be and has been life-threatening. If you had cancer, diabetes, or congestive heart failure, you would have no qualms about telling people that you are sick and you need their support. The depressive episode that you just experienced almost killed you.”

She was right. I had indeed been close to death when I sat in my living room trying to kill myself. But now I was in recovery, though not yet recovered, not yet well. Just because you survive a heart attack doesn’t mean you are well enough to return to business as usual. I was committed to slowing down, working only part time, and doing the difficult work of introspection to determine what needed to change for me to get mentally well. No easy task, but I was committed to this new “staying alive plan,” as I called it.

I’m a girl who loves an action plan, and so I accepted this new beginning and my goal of “getting better” with zeal. I would name and accept depression as an intermittent presence in my life, but I would not let this illness kill me. I quit a full time job I didn’t like very much, despite its benefits and health insurance. I continued working 20 hours per week at my second job that I actually enjoyed, training youth on issues of reproductive justice. I swallowed my pride and asked my parents for financial help, explaining to them what had been going on with my mental health. When the deposit appeared in my bank account, I cringed with sadness and shame at the thought of my 30th birthday rapidly approaching and me asking my parents, at retirement age, for money. I reminded myself several times a day, this is what I need to do to get better.

They say things get worse before they get better. Four months after my depression almost killed me, one month after I had committed to the “staying alive plan,” I received unexpected bad news in the unlikeliest of settings.

I was in a parking lot on a perfect spring day when I was told I had breast cancer. Minutes earlier, I had been seated at my desk in front of my computer in the office I share with my coworker. I heard the phone ring, saw the phone number of the incoming call and knew it was the doctor’s office. My first emotion was relief. Good news would come over the phone, I had assumed, and bad news would come in person, at my scheduled follow-up appointment on Monday. This was Tuesday, and they were calling me. It had to be good news. They wouldn’t give bad news over the phone. (Spoiler alert: they totally can and will give you bad news over the phone.)

“Just one second,” I said, as I rose from my desk, and paced quickly to the end of the hall, pushing down the bar on the glass door that led outside. I wrapped my one free arm around my ribcage while holding the phone to my ear with the other, not because I was chilly — it was warm with a clear blue sky — but almost instinctively to brace myself for the news I didn’t know was coming. “OK, I’m here.” The kind, pleasant, well-measured voice of the surgeon on the other end of the call resumed. “We have the results back from your pathology, and unfortunately it is bad news. We found a cancer.”

Each of her words hit me like a punch in the gut. Unfortunately. Bad news. Cancer. I was silent, slowly pacing up the inclined walkway away from the building. My eyebrows knit together, my eyes squinting against the brightness, as my brain tried to process what I was hearing. She must have said the wrong thing, I thought. It’s supposed to be good news, she’s supposed to tell me this is over. Things are supposed to be getting better.

Finally I realized she was not going to say anything else until she heard a response from me. “OK…” I managed to produce a word from my throat. Surely now she’ll realize she made a mistake and correct herself. But she didn’t. She went on to describe the findings of the pathology report in her characteristically slow, deliberate voice that I would come to find comforting, as I would come to think of her as “my surgeon.” From that point on in the call, I heard and digested only fragmented words and phrases. Carcinoma. Invasive. Margins. Genetic testing. Mastectomy. Chemotherapy. Radiation. All words that have become part of my lexicon and daily conversations with doctors, friends, and family. But that day, the effort to digest two simple words, “breast cancer,” took my breath away.

I finished the phone call with my surgeon, and through the fog of it all, I heard her say I would be scheduled for three different doctors appointments at the Cancer Center on Thursday. At some point, I had found my way to my car and unlocked the door to slip inside the driver’s seat. I leaned my elbows against the steering wheel for a moment with my head in my hands, then said, “OK. Thank you,” and hung up. I struggled to breathe. It was still a beautiful spring day, and the breeze rustled the leaves of the tree overhead.

That day was an uninvited new beginning. The day I was diagnosed with cancer and my 30th birthday a month and a half later would stand in my memory as bookends to a surreal and nightmarish chapter of my life.

After that phone call, I left work in a rapid fury, rushing back inside the office building to gather my things. I didn’t know where or what I was rushing to, but I knew I could not stay there. As I merged onto the freeway, I thought, what are you supposed to do the day you find out you have cancer? I had never heard this question asked, and I didn’t have an answer. I made an attempt to survey my body, mind and heart. What do you want or need right now? To call my mom. To be with friends. Alcohol. Cigarettes. To break things. My mom had been staying with me to help me as I recovered from the surgical biopsy that led to my diagnosis. I called her from the car; she was out walking, enjoying the weather. “They said they found cancer,” I told her. She stayed calm. I stayed calm. It was strange that we were both able to maintain a calm exterior in the face of such terror.

As I established earlier: I’m a girl who loves an action plan, and so I set to work. I dialed my friends as I drove, assigning tasks to various individuals. I was piecing together a plan, an “I found out I have cancer” ritual. We’d meet at A. & K.’s house. A. would buy beer and champagne. C. would pick me up and drive me home in case I drank too much. I would bring snacks. J. would bring my cigarettes, which she typically rationed to me at her own discretion, in an effort to modulate my smoking habit.

It’s not surprising that my gut reaction to my diagnosis was to create a ritual. I find them helpful, especially in times of transition. They guide us along the process of change and afford us some symbolism to understand the chapter that is closing and the one that is opening.

On the night of my diagnosis, I sat in the backyard with my four dear friends. We drank. I rushed everyone to drink their beers quickly, so that we could amass enough glass bottles for the main event. We smoked, and no one gave me shit for smoking cigarettes the day I was diagnosed with cancer. We laughed darkly about the absurdity of it all, of me surviving severe depression only to be diagnosed with cancer. When the laughter ran out, we stared silently at one another with a sad helplessness in our eyes until it was twilight and we couldn’t see each others’ faces. Then, we lined up in front of the house, several feet from the brick foundation that lined the crawl space. And we threw the beer bottles with all our might at the crease between the house and the concrete driveway. Each shatter was musical but short lived. They punctuated the words from the surgeon’s phone call, and the silent dialogue that had run through my head. Unfortunately. *shatter* Bad news. *shatter* Cancer. *shatter* Fuck. *shatter* We took turns, with me doing the honors of breaking the three extra bottles. It was over too quickly.

I ushered everyone inside for the final piece of the absurd, tragic cancer ritual. A. began pouring champagne into blue-patterned teacups. C. read a poem about welcoming pain and sadness when they come to reside with you unannounced. I said to my friends, “We’re going to toast the beginning of this shitty season, and we’re going to toast again when it’s over.”

Cheers. And, fuck you, cancer.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

Originally published: September 9, 2016
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