How to “Get Over” The Cancer Experience: My Mental Health Journey

My youngest sister was diagnosed with Stage IV Wilm’s Tumor when I was seven years old. The next year of our lives was spent in and out of the hospital as she went through chemotherapy, radiation, and a nephrectomy. Following her remission, cancer continued to beat down my family as I grew up, with the loss of my father’s sister, brother-in-law, and brother to cancer over the course of my early adulthood. Cancer’s path of destruction allowed other diseases to permeate through my family: depression and anxiety.

I was always a “dramatic” child.

Sidebar: I absolutely HATE that descriptor. I have a lot of feelings, and I want to communicate them with those I care about.  As the “drama queen,” I was made fun of for being emotional when things happened to me. I had a good life, why did I always have to be upset? I always wrote my negative self-talk and behavior off as a flaw in my personality. I couldn’t be depressed or anxious. After all, I had a kind, supportive family, and I was smart and capable of achieving my goals. So why did I feel hopeless?

So when a close family member attempted suicide during my sophomore year of college after her battle with cancer, I showed up with as much strength as I could muster because she deserved someone as her rock.  But watching her in the ICU and the psychiatric ward was shocking because I always thought that my family would end up there because of me.

Seeing her struggles made me realize that my thought patterns were more problematic than I previously acknowledged. I regularly contemplated self-harm, and I was never kind to myself. I didn’t take care of myself in any way, shape, or form. But I couldn’t understand how I could be depressed. I didn’t “deserve” to feel this way.

My intrusive thoughts and destructive behavior intensified after my aunt lost her battle to cancer. I threw myself into drinking and partying. I spent every waking second of my life doing one activity or another. I refused to acknowledge how problematic I felt until I (a nearly perfect student eager to go to medical school after my sister’s experience) began failing biochemistry. I still refused to see a professional about my mental state until after my uncle died from cancer the following fall.

My first therapy experience wasn’t great. I didn’t have a good connection with my therapist, and after a few sessions, I stopped going. My grades, which were still subpar, convinced me to take a hiatus from pursuing medical school and instead explore master’s program options. When I was accepted into a graduate program on the other side of the country, I thought, “This is my chance to start over. I’ll feel better once I’m out of this place.”

After moving 1600 miles away from my family, my mental health continued to deteriorate rapidly. It wasn’t until I found myself sitting on my bathroom floor at 3 AM with half a bottle of sleeping pills in hand that it really clicked with me that I needed professional intervention, and I needed it yesterday.

For the next two years of my life, I tried multiple different interventions to deal with my now diagnosed major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. My first provider decided we should only do medication, which evened me out but didn’t solve the root of the issue. My second provider wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to communicate my needs. Finally, through trial and error, I was able to find both a psychiatrist and a therapist that work together to help support me in my mental health journey.

I am struggling with my mental health, too. What do I do?

If you think that you may need help but you’re unsure where to start, screening tests, like these provided by Mental Health America, can be a helpful place to start. Investigate local mental health care professionals or talk to your doctor about the issues you are struggling with. The most important thing that you can do is be honest and genuine with yourself and your providers. If you’re looking for more information about treatment in general, the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) is an excellent place to explore more about what your journey might look like. 

If you need group or individual mental health support, here are some programs that you might want to check out:

  • BetterHelp and Talkspace are virtual companies that provide the opportunity to connect with a mental health provider on your phone or computer at any time.
  • Charlie Health is a virtual company based out of Montana that provides both individual and group mental health support for adolescents and young adults across the United States.This is where I got a lot of my personal treatment! 

If you’re interested in a program or support group more specifically focused on cancer experience, support groups may be a good option for you to work on your mental health.

  • CancerCare provides a wide variety of online and live support groups for patients, caregivers, and those grieving the loss of a loved one.
  • Looking for virtual support? Vivibot is a mental health chatbot designed for young adult cancer survivors, with research showing that use of Vivibot supported anxiety reduction in young adult cancer survivors.
  • Not ready to seek professional help? GRYT Health provides monthly member meetups, where those who have been affected by cancer can get together and find community with one another. If a Zoom meetup seems too intimidating at first, check out our text-based app.

When seeking out a mental health provider, it’s important to find a provider that is a good fit for you. Do your research! A good place to start if you have health insurance is to explore your insurance’s provider network. Most therapists have a website or biography that give you an idea of their specialities and treatment styles. If you don’t have insurance or aren’t finding a great match within your network, there are multiple databases full of providers based on many different factors: 

What about cost? Isn’t therapy expensive?

When talking to others about my therapy experience, one of the most common responses I got was, “I could never afford that.” What you might be surprised to hear is that I have paid less than $500 out-of-pocket over the last six years for my mental health treatment.

If you have health insurance, calling your insurance company and asking about mental health coverage can go a long way. I determined that if I opted for virtual appointments, I could attend multiple therapy sessions a week for a discounted co-pay. Additionally, I encourage you to use your provider to your advantage! As healthcare experts, they may be able to navigate your coverage and communications with your insurance more effectively.

If you don’t have health insurance or your health insurance doesn’t cover mental health treatment, don’t worry! You still have affordable options for mental health treatment. I utilized a sliding scale plan for a few months when I was uninsured. Sliding scale plans are based on your income: individuals who have lower incomes pay less for insurance. Most providers offer sliding scale payment plans for individuals with lacking or no health insurance coverage. Other providers may also provide limited pro bono (without charge) appointments in special circumstances. Check in with your potential provider to determine their payment plan options. 

Will a mental illness diagnosis impact my job?

A lot of people, myself included, are nervous to pursue mental health treatment because they don’t want their diagnosis on paper. A common belief is that having a mental illness will prevent you from getting certain jobs or participating in certain activities; however, in most cases, this isn’t true! If you’re wondering how to advocate for yourself at work when seeking mental health treatment, NAMI has information on what opportunities for accommodations are available. 

If you’re worried about taking time off work for regular appointments, know that you have options. Virtual therapy platforms, like the ones listed above, provide a unique opportunity to engage with therapists at times that work for you. Additionally, many providers may offer special appointment times if you are unable to make an appointment during typical business hours.

Mental health healing is ongoing, and your journey is unique!

For my entire life, I was convinced that cancer and the mess it brings with it was something that you have to “just get over,” but it isn’t that simple. Whether it’s your own journey or the journey of a loved one, cancer becomes part of your story. But what isn’t talked about nearly as much is how important it is to process the trauma associated with that part of your story. Whether it be from your experience as a survivor or caregiver or the loss of loved ones, your mind deserves the opportunity to heal. For me, healing has come through using my voice to share my own experience and advocate for others who might not be ready to share theirs. I hope that, through, reading my story, you feel empowered to use your voice to advocate for your own mental health, no matter what that looks like.

Vivibot

Thanks for reading! What should you do next?

  • Want to connect with others? Our GRYT Health platform is a safe place for real conversations where you can connect with others who are going through what you are. Bonus! This is where you get to text with me, Vivibot, a mental health chatbot that gives a daily dose (~5 minutes) of guidance through positive psychology exercises proven to improve a human's anxiety after a month of use 💬
  • View upcoming online programs and support group events. Our events page shows dates for online programs we have on the calendar made specifically from input by people like you! We <3 our community and listen to bring programs to life that they're asking for 💞
  • Read cancer patient stories. Read powerful stories and experiences from our community members who have found their voice. Advocacy starts at finding and using your voice 📢