Audrey Birt, Director for Scotland of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, was herself recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She has written this piece to join in the mental heath carnival.
In my own blog I describe how I have now been diagnosed with early breast cancer twice in my life. The experience I have described as an ebb and flow. Not always predictable or easy to put into words. But maybe one of the paradoxes is both times just as I have felt I was coming to the end of the process or indeed safely out the other end… I have felt at my worst emotionally.
I considered calling one blog “Permission to Feel Pissed Off” but didn’t because it wasn’t as simple as that. And, believe me, telling someone how brave they are can sometimes be seriously annoying. Is it only ever OK to be the brave cancer patient? Show me the person who is always brave… I would love to meet them and shake their hand. Because for most of us it needs to be OK to be scared or fed up or angry or, dare I say it, depressed.
Depression is common during or after a cancer diagnosis. Studies quote between 15 per cent and 40 per cent of people will report a depression… and I suspect a significant group in addition who don’t seek treatment too. Perhaps it’s not surprising at the time of diagnosis, throwing your life in turmoil and so on, that the black dog comes barking at the door. But that doesn’t mean it will happen to everyone and therefore doesn’t need or benefit from treatment.
With this side effect of a diagnosis so common, let’s open up that conversation with those we care for and give them the opportunity to say how they are really. It may save them from the pain and isolation that depression can bring.
One of the things I feared when I was diagnosed last year was the effect on my mood. I remembered how hellish it was to feel low for months, complicated by fatigue of a bone-aching variety. It passed but I didn’t want to go back there. Ever. I turned down one of the treatments which I believed contributed to that feeling. And yes that decision effects my recurrence risk but I want quality of life as well as quantity. And it’s a risk I have analysed and decided to take.
There is a paradox that as you start to look back on a diagnosis you also then can hit your darkest point. And oh the guilt of that. After all, you have survived, haven’t you? You faced a cancer diagnosis and lived. Be grateful. And of course for me I am, in so many ways, but I have also needed to accept that again it’s had an impact and not surprisingly some of that has not been good.
Let’s be honest none of its been good. Not what I planned or wanted. And as the winter set in I could feel a sinking of my mood that scared me. I admit to midwinter never being my favourite time but this was different. I have felt anxious about small things, fretted over nothing and get the wellies out if there is something sad on TV. Sleep was a variable feast and I was starting the week feeling overwhelmed and concerned about having the energy to finish it. All at the same time that everyone assumes that it’s all behind you and everything is fixed.
Happily my festive break pulled me through and the benefit of rest and good times a timely reminder to ensure more of that in the months to come. Especially with more surgery to face. Importantly I have also found it helpful to view my low points as an important part of the process. So not to feel guilty, not to feel a sense of failure but to be honest about it and to ask for help too.
What has also helped is my Zumba class. I always leave it smiling. I won’t mention the limp! Walking as I did today through the Botanic Gardens in the sun, spotting the snowdrops feeds my soul. And most importantly of all time with people I love. I know making time for all these things help.
In my blog I always have a reasons to be cheerful section. This has helped me seek out and value the good things and I feel better once I have articulated them. That is hard to do from the depth of a depression but finding a positive even in the worst gloom is an important step back to health. And do remember if you are struggling, ask for help, don’t struggle alone, depression is treatable and there will be better times again.
And finally my blog has been a huge reason for me to be cheerful. Just the process of writing down my thoughts and fears has unburdened me. It’s also engaged me with a wonderful network of people. I recommend it.