My hair was growing back, my CA125 (Ovarian Cancer marker) was within a normal range and I had my graduate degree in hand. And yet, with all of this ‘good news’ happening, my physician, Dr. Susan Essman, paused to talk to me about learning to live as a healthy person again. Hadn’t I been succeeding at living as a healthy person, simply pausing occasionally for a chemotherapy treatment or a surgery?
I assumed that I would kick cancer’s ass and then the treatment detour would take me back to the same road I had been traveling. I would return to my duties as a homeroom mom, working part-time as a hospice social worker and taking care of my daughters and my husband. It turned out that the “surviving cancer journey” is not the same as the “fighting cancer expedition”. Dr. Susan Essman was wise to try to prepare me for what lay ahead.
Like most people, I am energized by a challenge. With every chemo treatment down, I knew I was gaining on the enemy and strategizing for the win. After months of being consumed with winning the fight against cancer, while living my life as normally as possible, I was not prepared for the hole of deep depression that began to consume me.
I remember walking into my closet, looking at my clothes and having difficulty trying to summon the energy to get dressed. At work, as a hospice social worker, I wept uncontrollably at the end of every day. All I wanted to do is crawl in bed try to sleep it off. My family and friends had a difficult time understanding why I could not celebrate the good news that I had survived. What was wrong with me?
My breaking point came on the day that I lost one of my favorite patients. I sat at her bedside, in a long-term care facility, watching as she fought for every breath. I broke down in uncontrollable tears. When the chaplain came in to relieve me, I went into the hall and called Kristin Heydt, nurse practitioner at my gynecological oncologist, Dr. Albert Bonebrake’s office. I cried that the depression was worse than the cancer. I wanted to return to my work, family and friends as a whole person. Cancer was suppose to be a detour. I wanted my life back! I felt broken beyond repair. While I hated the thought of leaning on more medication, it was the antidepressants that gave me a ladder out of the deep hole.
However, the antidepressants alone would not cure me. The best medicine for the depression that comes from transitioning from fighting to surviving is to help someone else with their fight.