Cancer, the magnifying glass

Cancer, the magnifying glass

By Sarah Bell

I have dealt with anxiety all my life. It was so ingrained in me that it had become second nature in virtually all respects. I had no idea where I ended and the anxiety began. In any given situation it forced me away from loved ones, convinced me I was worthless, and riddled me with fear at anything unfamiliar.

Then, after 29 years of otherwise being physically healthy and somewhat fit, I was issued a one way ticket to the cancer world byway of an acute myeloid leukemia (AML) diagnosis. Until my cancer diagnosis, I had not truly understood what anxiety was or how to combat it.

Entering the cancer centre was completely unfamiliar territory, yet, this new world was something I needed to acclimate to quickly.

My diagnosis meant an anticipated initial four-week inpatient stay on the oncology ward at my local northern Ontario hospital. During that stay, doctors and nurses would come and go at unpredictable intervals bringing meds, test results, and treatments. Porters would come to shuffle me around the labyrinth that was the hospital. Intermittently, friends and family would visit (I was graciously diagnosed in a pre-COVID-19 world). In the blink of an eye, my life was stripped to four beige walls, my PICC line and the most perfect roommate (also known as my husband, who diligently spent every night at my side on a makeshift chair bed). These were the only constants I had in this new world.

On any given day at the hospital, I would make best efforts to get up and walk around my ward, but my energy drained quickly; walks were limited to wherever I could drag my chemo pole. My body was quite literally stuck, but my mind would continue to race in circles. I would contemplate all the “what-ifs” and worst case scenarios that my mind could invent with the fervour of a dog with a bone. I was an artist at this with nearly three decades of expertise promoting my anxiety unwittingly.

Except I was now no longer able to fuel my anxiety by running from it. I didn’t have the energy reserves to get to a panic attack state. And because of this, I simply had to sit with my thoughts. Every last one of them.

I wasn’t able to enact my normal litany of poorly established coping mechanisms byway of moving jobs or cities or lacing up my Nikes and hitting the road for a few kilometres. Instead, I was chained to my bed with all the lifesaving science modern medicine could muster. There was no more running from my mental illness on the fourth floor of Health Sciences North, I was forced to face it head on. I had to deal with whatever rush of emotions and anxiety fell over me, and they came at me like a tsunami of anger, resentment, and a resounding fear.

My blood counts tanked in that initial hospital stay, only to rebuild. The same, frankly, could be said for my mental state.

Cancer kickstarted a progression towards prioritizing not only my physical health, but my mental health, as well. I started to accept myself and all my scars in that clinical environment devoid of distractions. In very quick succession, I had to sit with and face down very real fears that had previously plagued me to no end. Cancer brought my fears to focus and by doing so, I came to realize that thoughts aren’t facts. Just because my anxiety brought a thought to the forefront of my mind didn’t mean it would come to fruition. I found freedom from the chain of my thoughts.

Through this experience, I came to realize the stigma facing mental health medication was erroneously misplaced. Acceptable mental health management are often snake oils as a result of the profound stigma towards medicating mental health, and it is this stigma that further chains patients to a harmful cycle of avoidance.

With cancer, medication had become a daily part of my life. I needed various medications to combat leukemia and the side effects that those cancer fighting medications offered. After treatment, I still needed various prophylactic drugs to support my now infantile immune system. Adding in a few more drugs to try to combat my anxiety didn’t make much of a difference in my daily pill load, but it certainly did with my quality of life. In doing so, I began to realize what life could be like without anxiety colouring my every move.

I was fortunate to reach remission during that first stay; my blood results reentered the normal range. On the cancer front, I faced three more rounds of intensive chemotherapy and required a haematological stem cell transplant to be officially out of the woods of my cancer diagnosis (at least on paper).

My anxiety wasn’t quite yet in remission, however, this initial progress spurred me to put my mental health under the magnifying glass. It spurred me to begin reading various self-help books, articles, social media posts, and request a psychosocial oncology referral all to focus on finally vanquishing my anxiety to a manageable level.

I will likely always need to navigate anxiety on some level, but through the magnifying glass of cancer I have been developing a toolkit so that it doesn’t define me.

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