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The Reality of My Post-Cancer Depression

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I happen to be a good baseline for what post-cancer depression can feel like, because there had never been even a single depressive “bone” in my body prior to cancer. I was always upbeat and optimistic about everything, believed there were solutions to every problem and did not have pre-existing issues with depression or anxiety.

My cancer diagnosis at the age of 33 is the first time I faced any mental health issues in my life at all, and they hit me like a load of bricks.

Forget About All the Statistics

First off, forget about any statistics you might have read about post-cancer depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress. I don’t personally know of a single cancer survivor who hasn’t experienced mental health-related issues after cancer — it’s just a matter of what it is and how bad.

You should never feel bad about yourself if you find yourself facing depression after cancer because how could you not be depressed after something like this?

Post-Cancer Depression Can Happen At Any Time

I thought I had been doing pretty well my first year or so after cancer, all things considered. I struggled in various ways, yes, but the heavy-hitting emotional fallout didn’t hit me until nearly two years later, when friends I had made started dying. Watching friends die of cancer is what finally made all of this real deep inside my mind, and not just a bad dream.

Reaching two years out from my cancer diagnosis was a huge milestone. I should have felt like I was on top of the world, right? No. With one friend in the ground and another in hospice care, I was terrified out of my fucking mind and felt like if something was going to happen to me, it was going to happen sooner rather than later — and I had the fear of God in me.

I didn’t want this anymore. I was tired of feeling so afraid, tired of feeling so vulnerable and tired of having my own body scaring the hell out of me with all of its strange post-cancer pains and behaviors, making me think my cancer had returned. I lost interest in various hobbies and things that had interested me, didn’t want to be around anyone besides my family and a few extremely close friends, and didn’t even really want to be around myself. I largely withdrew from the world and stopped being social for a long time.

I finally hit an emotional rock bottom and a very deep depression, two years after my cancer diagnosis and fight.

Nobody Could See My Depression

I didn’t stop living my life, but my inner struggles were invisible to the world. I would go out on weekends with my family or friends and have the time of my life. We enjoyed great trips and vacations and had so much fun together. But whenever we returned, this misery was always there waiting for me — the waiting, the wondering, the fear and the doubts.

How could this not drag you down? I felt so vulnerable, defective and worthless inside. I felt like damaged goods. Who would want to be around someone like me? Even I didn’t want to be around me or my body, but what choice did I have? I was so haunted inside and just felt trapped. I wanted out of this experience and would have given everything I had just to escape this miserable life experience of continually waiting and wondering.

Cancer is merciless. It will push you well past your limits until you break, listen to you screaming for mercy, and then just keep on pushing you relentlessly. The only person who could hear my internal screaming was me.

cancer survivor on Disney trip with family
I enjoyed literally every second of this blissful week at Disney World with my family in the spring of 2013. Can you tell that I was in the midst of a terrible post-cancer depression here?

So What Can You Do?

Live Your Life Balls to the Wall. That’s actually an aviation term and nothing to do with male anatomy! Whatever you want to call it, just live your fucking life. It’s OK to be a wreck, it’s OK to be scared out of your mind, but never stop living your life. Don’t let cancer rule you like that. Keep living your life at full speed ahead, and don’t slow down for anybody!

Stop Worrying. I had to learn to let go. Worrying never got me anywhere, but it did distract from my ability to enjoy my time right now. I was depressed because I was so worried, and the more I worried, the deeper my depression became. It was a vicious cycle. Just let go, realize you have no control and live your life in the moment.

Find Faith. I replaced my worry with faith. I was so afraid my cancer was going to come back and that I was just going to die of cancer anyways. Developing faith and an independent system of beliefs helped to relieve me of those fears.

Stop Identifying With Your Body. Repeat after me, “You are not your body.” We’re so much more than that. I had to learn to stop seeing the shortcomings of my body as some sort of personal failure and to recognize the true me for me — the beautiful soul within. Your body’s “failure” is not yours personally, so stop beating yourself up for that as though you’re any less of a person than anybody else. You’re not. You are beautiful, scars and all.

Find Forgiveness. Part of why I was depressed was because I feared dragging my whole family through this hell again if my cancer were to return. I had to learn to forgive my body for failing me. This is the true nature of life. These things can happen. There are no guarantees for anybody. I stopped identifying with my body and learned to forgive it for doing what bodies sometimes do.

Find the Right People. There are a few amazing people out there who just had a magical way of connecting with me that would immediately put me at ease, relax my fears and my mind, and help me to just live in the moment. Soulmates, soul brothers and soul sisters — they’ve all meant the world to me. There are people out there just like this for you, too. If you haven’t found them yet, keep looking.

Find a Purpose. With apologies to my many engineering world colleagues, I knew I was never going to make the difference in the world I needed to make doing engineering things. My nonprofit work and writing about life after cancer has been a purpose fulfilled, a great method of coping and healing for me and for others, and has reached hundreds of thousands around the world to help them heal and find their ways through this, too. If I were to get bad news right now, I know I’ve done something meaningful with my time here, thus taking away another fear and source of depression.

I’ve lived my life well and have done meaningful things with it. That matters.

Periods of depression are inevitable after cancer, even many years later. You can’t necessarily stop cancer-related depression from happening, but you may have the power and control over your inner and outer environments to make sure that such periods will be shallow and brief.

With the right people, the right coping mechanisms, and the right inner and outer attitudes, you can power through these periods of darkness and get back to thriving after cancer again!

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo by Smileus

Originally published: August 9, 2017
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