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When Discharge From the Psych Ward Is Followed by a Cancer Diagnosis

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Although I kept quiet about it, and most people didn’t know, I spent the past two months in an intensive mental health program. While I was there, however, things took a turn for the worst and I ended up needing an inpatient stay at the psych ward. It was unpleasant, but it did help my medications get straightened out, and I felt a lot more stable coming out of it. I felt like I was finally getting back to standing on my own two feet again. However, life has taught me never to get too comfortable — I should have known better.

After my psychiatric hospitalization, I ended up returning to work after a two-month medical leave. I’m a teacher and was extremely excited, as I really missed my students. Of course, as it goes, one of them was sick with a cold the week I came back, which I then became sick with a week later.

Except for me, the cough got so bad I couldn’t breathe. I ended up going to urgent care one night a week after I returned and I was given a cough suppressant and inhaler. If that didn’t help, they told me I should get a chest X-ray because I probably had pneumonia.

Long story short, the medications didn’t help. By Tuesday night, I could barely walk without completely losing my breath. So, I went to my local emergency room to get a chest X-ray. I figured it was just another case of pneumonia, as I’ve gotten pneumonia three times before. I was used to the cough and the shortness of breath. I just wanted them to give me some antibiotics so I could head back into work soon.

Well, the chest X-ray came back negative. So, they thought maybe I had a blood clot and asked if they could run a chest CT. The good news is, I didn’t have a blood clot. However, my lymph nodes were extremely enlarged — even for someone who has an infection, so I was told I might have cancer and to see an oncologist right away.

I remember leaving and laughing because that just wasn’t possible. First of all, I tried too hard to kill myself to wind up with cancer as soon I was stable again. That would be a sick joke. Second of all, I’m only 26. People my age don’t get cancer.

Except, after seeing numerous oncologists, I found out, I do. I have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. To say I have a complex relationship with my diagnosis is an understatement.

For context, I spent two years cycling in and out of psych wards. My mental illness is debilitating enough where at one point, my loved ones and treatment team suggested it was time to start thinking about applying for disability. I spent my childhood living through multiple traumatic situations, and I spent the next five years after trying to learn how to cope with it.

I worked hard to graduate college this past January. I worked hard to secure a job as a full-time teacher directly after graduation. I worked hard to get to where I am. So, having a mental health relapse this spring was difficult, because I knew I should be celebrating. I should be having the time of my life and enjoying my “big girl job.” Instead, I was in another round of treatment for my mental health. Then, directly after being stabilized, I find out I have cancer?

It’s all been a punch in the gut. While I embrace my mental illnesses, I can also acknowledge I’ll always feel like I’ve lost years of my life because I was unable to fully engage in what was happening around me. Whether it was due to being in hospitals or just being extremely symptomatic, I spent years being unable to hold down a job, unable to attend university and unable to maintain a friendship, nevermind a relationship.

I was excited to finally be stable and able to do those things again when I got discharged from my latest psychiatric stay. Yet, now it’s like I’m seeing my life flash before my eyes again.

And it’s hard. It’s really hard, in fact. Lately, my biggest feat is getting out of bed in the morning. I’m not going to kill myself, but I am having suicidal thoughts again due to finding out I have cancer. Because I don’t want to deal with it. Having cancer on top of everything else is just… too much. It’s too much for me to handle. Most of the time, I feel like I’m at my breaking point.

Yet, still, as much as I hate it sometimes, a part of rebuilding my life from the ground up meant finding things to live for. It meant getting married, becoming a dog mom and finding my passion in helping those with disabilities. So, as much as I’d love to end my life sometimes, I also have to cope with the fact that even though I do have cancer, I’ve come a long way. And even though it feels like my life will never be the same again, I have the coping skills to keep going, despite the fact sometimes I don’t want to.

But I’ll be honest: It’s still hard. I have more bad days than I do good right now. My brain likes to trick me that it’s my fault I have cancer, and a lot of times it likes to go to dark places, causing panic attacks, crying spells and an overall sense of being too overwhelmed to cope. I’m not very social, and I’m not a fun person to be around right now.

I am trying, though. I like to joke around if I’m not allowed to kill myself, cancer is certainly not allowed to do the job for me. I know it’s a morbid thought, but right now my morbid sense of humor is the only thing keeping me from succumbing to the darkest parts of my mind.

But I’d be lying if I said I’m not waiting for the day where this all gets easier. The day where having cancer is an afterthought and not in the forefront of my mind all the time. And for my sake, I’m hoping that day comes soon. But just in case it doesn’t, I’m learning how to be OK with not being OK. Because I will be OK eventually. Today’s just not that day.

Unsplash image by Riccardo Mion

Originally published: July 14, 2021
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