Overcoming my cancer-related depression

Overcoming my cancer-related depression

By Andrea Whittle

I wasn’t depressed before cancer. Yes, I have felt very sad and upset over things, but I could always think through those feelings and they would always pass. I’ve learned depression doesn’t pass; it’s a consistent weighted feeling of not being good enough, not feeling worthy, not cared about, lonely, and sad. The world is spinning, life is flourishing around you, and you’re stuck in the quicksand, slowly sinking, drowning in your thoughts and feelings.

I remember when it started. It was back in 2016, it was the summer, and I was sitting in my sun room just reflecting on what had happened over the past eight months. I was starting to feel better physically from surgery, chemo, and radiation. My road wasn’t finished, I just had a few weeks of “catching my breath” before the next chapter of my battle.

I remember the heaviness in my chest, my joints, bones, and soul. It felt very solid and dark. It took time, but I realized I was feeling depression. Battling cancer was so hard. I felt borderline dead for days—weeks—after every chemo cycle. Dealing with shingles for four months from the financial stress, the hole in my armpit from radiation, the double mastectomy, the complications from surgery, the heart failure, losing the ability to have babies, all the chronic pain that just never stops, my brain failing me in so many ways—it was all so difficult.

I found myself wondering why I fought so hard to live. I lost my best friends, was abandoned by family, betrayed by my son’s father. Why did I fight so hard to survive? I had nothing left. The reason was my son. He’s the only person who matters. He is my reason to be alive. He needs me as badly as I need him.

This depression is so dark. It feels heavy as its flowing through my veins in slow motion. It’s in my joints, muscles, and bones. It’s an overwhelming feeling and it never lets up. I cried for four months straight this year; I had cuts under my eyes from the never-ending tears. I was able to make them stop when my son was around, but when he was at school, I would spend the day crying, not being able to find the strength to stop when he wasn’t in toe.

I described it to my new friends as I was in “D.P.S MODE”—Depressed Piece of Shit. When they asked how I was that day, it was just easier to say, “Ooh I’m just DPSing today,” or “It was a DPS day.” It was easier to joke about it then it was to try and explain it. I don’t like making people feel sorry for me. I like lifting spirits, not crushing them.

I’ve tried four different anti-depressants since 2017. The first one worked for a year, but as life kept falling apart, the depression was getting stronger until it had full control. I feel like I’ve lost control of my life; all the hopes and dreams I had for my future have been ripped out of reach and sight. I’ve been seeing a councillor since 2017.

I lost the old Andrea. She died during the double mastectomy. Ever since I woke up, I’ve been living in a real nightmare. Every time I go to sleep, I hope to wake up and be the old happy, smiling, full-of-strength-and-life-Andrea, but when I wake up, I feel the empty bed beside me and the emptiness of my life rushes in before my feet hit the carpet.

I found out depression can have a life of its own. It hijacks my brain. I remember being in my closet last fall and I saw a bag of old medications I’ve stashed away in a safe place to dispose of properly at the drug store (I just never remember to take this bag!), Upon first sight of the Ziploc bag, I thought, “If I took this whole bag, I could just end this.” I’m still in shock today that thought came in my head, unprovoked. In that moment I realized this depression was bigger than me.

Cancer has taught me to be a master actress. I can put makeup on to cover my torn face from all the tears. I can smile big for people, be a rock for my peers, give solid advice and be a great support to them. I do this while deflecting my true feelings, helping them feel strong and giving them hope that life gets better after treatment’s done when the truth is, it didn’t for me. Life for me after cancer was harder—much harder—and I’m tired of pretending.

I am determined to not let this mental illness beat me. If I can survive cancer, I can survive anything.

The only light in my life, other than my son, is Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC). YACC has saved my life through unconditional love and acceptance. Being involved in Localife, Retreat Yourself, Survivor Conference, and being a YACCtivist has helped me develop incredible powers. It definitely wasn’t an overnight epiphany, it’s been a year of hard work and not letting myself give up.

I learned some great tips at the 2019 Survivor Conference during a panel discussion about how to overcome survivor shame/guilt:

  • Connect with other survivors
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Treat ourselves like we treat others
  • Look in the mirror and connect with “you”
  • Do 20-30 minutes of exercise three days a week
  • Set realistic goals for myself
  • Schedule check ins for myself
  • Attach mindfulness in everyday things
  • Challenge the shame of therapy. Is it valid?

I went home from the conference feeling some hope that I can turn this around. I completely stopped taking anti-depressants, I continued seeing my councillor every two weeks, I have been to every monthly AYA cancer group meeting, I haven’t missed a Localife event. I was already meditating with an app called Calm, I just continued it and meditated more, practicing mindfulness, writing a gratitude journal, walking every day for over an hour, lifting 5 lb weights, and trying yoga. I am doing everything that was said at that discussion panel.

It’s been six months since the conference, and I am HAPPY to say IT IS WORKING! Progress has been slow, but I am no longer struggling daily. A spark has been lit in my soul again and its burning away at the depression. I can share my true feelings with people and be proud of my journey. I can set goals again and stay focused and determined to reach them.

If it wasn’t for my son and YACC, I don’t know where I would be today, or even if I’d be here sharing this. My advice to those who feel like they are drowning in the dark is: NEVER GIVE UP. You are strong, smart, and have the power to get better.

I still have DPS days, but I can handle them now knowing to accept those thoughts and feelings while not letting them take over my life. I will exercise, meditate, and talk to others until the darkness passes. And it does eventually pass.

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