I don't know why I've taken this long to blog. In fact, I've written several posts and not published them because I either couldn't find the right words or I just had too much life going on. Life is still going on but it's just recently that I've gotten the help I've needed to see that it's not "too much." I suppose one of the main reasons I'm writing tonight is because for a long time now I've worried that strangers might visit my page and wonder what's happened to me. I know this because I did the same when I was first diagnosed. I'd find women who blogged through their cancer experience as a form of therapy and then nothing. And my stressed, anxious mind thought the worst. So, here it is -- I'm officially alive and doing just fine! I don't say that lightly. Since my diagnosis three years ago I've had several friends and many acquaintances diagnosed. Some walked a very similar path to mine. Others didn't. That's the reality of cancer. I'm thankful for what my reality is. I've had the luxury of abandoning this blog for a long time because I've been physically healthy.
Health. What a complicated thing. I went through a phase about a year after my double mastectomy and reconstruction where I deemed it insane if I didn't do everything possible to get/stay healthy. I joined a gym, got a trainer, and learned how to use my chest, arm, and ab muscles again. Because a mastectomy changes all that. I ate a low-fat, high-protein diet and lost 15 pounds. Then I saw the results BHE (Best Husband Ever) was getting with a low-carb diet and switched to that. I lost another 20 pounds. I was doing things I hadn't done in years. I was playing with my kids more, taking on physical challenges, and making an effort to support others like me struggling through the aftermath of breast cancer. I was in a really great place. Or so I thought.
The thing about trauma is that it disrupts your life and forces you to focus on survival. When I was diagnosed my entire world turned to tests, appointments, procedures, surgeries, and recovery. It was perfectly normal to be anxious, angry, depressed, sad, lonely, and anything else I wanted to feel. Because grieving trauma is complex and we're allowed a lot of variation in how we deal with it. The problem arose when I realized all those feelings existed before I even knew I had cancer. I had been struggling for a long time and I knew it. The cancer just gave me a legitimate reason to say I was struggling.
So what happens when the cancer is "fixed" (that's not really a thing, by the way)? For me I attacked life. I got on that treadmill and literally chanted "f-you cancer" while I ran. That should have been a red flag that I was perhaps dealing with a deeper level of anger than was healthy. I lifted weights and progressed to levels I didn't think I could. And I would leave the gym convinced that I was doing my job to keep the cancer away. It felt amazing. People commented on my weight loss, on the way my body was changing, on the inspirational way I was handling recovery. And inside I was both loving and hating it. Every day it felt like climbing Mt. Everest to get to the gym and within six months I stopped climbing. The fear of commitment, of failure, the way my brain has been wired since birth -- it all caught up to me and I was back where I was before cancer entered my life. I was struggling to function and "be." All the while, even now, friends reading this would have no idea that any of this was churning in my mind. So I kept at it, getting the kids off to school, doing nothing for half the day, throwing clothes on to pick the kids up, and occasionally gathering myself enough to look like I had my life together. During this time I was also taking our son to counseling and finding the right meds to help his severe anxiety. He is my carbon copy and I hate that for him. After three years of doing this with him and telling him how important it was, how his brain is just wired differently, how it's nothing to be ashamed of or hide, I realized that I was lying to him. Because I wasn't getting the help I needed. So last November I asked his therapist to recommend someone for me to see.
It was painful taking that leap. I didn't want to talk about hard things -- cancer, childhood, expectations, failure, the irrationality in my head that I know constantly tells me lies. But I knew I had to. It's been several months now and it's helped. I just kept telling her how I shouldn't be struggling so much. There's nothing in my life that warrants this feeling that every single day is like running a marathon. And she agreed, suggesting that maybe the med I've been on for the last eight years was no longer working. And maybe the Tamoxifen (my daily hormone-blocking cancer drug and major mind screwer) was changing it's effectiveness. I discussed it with my oncologist and she referred me to a new oncology psychiatrist at my cancer center. I thought it wouldn't hurt to try this thing out, especially since the onc/psych would be more aware of what would/wouldn't interfere with my cancer med. I left my first appointment with her more hopeful than I'd been in the last few years. She was a breast cancer survivor herself and listened and affirmed every emotion and hardship I was facing. She changed my one med to three different ones and instructed me to do yoga as my first task. I thought only people with serious mental disorders -- schizophrenia, bipolar, etc. -- took these types of meds but in the last several weeks I feel like my eyes have been opened. I'm playing with my kids again. I'm getting up in the mornings excited and ready to tackle the day (and doing yoga). I'm not skipping out on social things and I'm actually seeking them out instead. I feel like the self I always knew I was but couldn't make me be. Again, anyone reading this who knows me will probably be shocked by much of this. Why? Because I've been crafting my mask from a very early age. But I'm done with it. I'm still seeing my counselor, psychiatrist, oncologist, and taking my new meds and I'm more hopeful about life than maybe I've ever been. It's hard to describe unless you're been there.
So why am I pouring all of this personal information our there? One, because I don't think we talk enough about mental health. I was born this way. I was raised by two parents who were raised by fathers struggling with PTSD from WWII. My own father had untreated PTSD his entire adult life after two tours in Vietnam. My siblings all struggle with some degree of anxiety and depression and we're starting to see it in our children as well. These are not the brains we would have chosen for ourselves but it's what we have and it doesn't make us any less valuable to society. Trauma is generational and I refuse to willingly pass it on to my kids.
Another reason I'm posting this is because cancer treatment, the surgeries, diagnostics, and drugs can subtly or profoundly alter our brains and ability to cope with even the slightest stressors. I'm thankful that it's now required that cancer centers screen for mental health stress at every appointment. In fact, I indicated a very high stress level at my last appointment because I had to wait forever for lab work and they sent a clinical psych intern to talk to me and make sure I was ok. Haha! It's a start.
I don't know who reads this blog or if it helps anyone. But hear this, friends -- whether you are someone I know or a complete stranger I am here. If you made it through this entire post (bless you) you did me a huge honor by listening. If you're struggling with cancer, either in the current throws or you're a 20-year survivor, take that leap. Say "screw it" to our culture that looks at mental illness as weakness. Did anyone tell you your cancer was a weakness? No. (Unless they were a horrible person.) Take care of your brain just as you would any other organ. If it needs help go get it. And if you don't know where to start or fear you can't afford it talk to your doctors and make them fight for you. They will. And if they don't they're not good doctors.
Tomorrow is Easter. In the Christian faith Easter is everything. It's the entire basis of our faith, the resurrection and new life, the chance of rescue from evil and pain. Whether you are a Christian or not, why not use this opportunity to commit to a rescue. If you are struggling it doesn't have to be that way.