Jacqui’s breast cancer diagnosis coincided with a number of other traumatic events, and she found herself experiencing a deep depression. This is how she managed to get through it.
Note: this is the second part of Jacqui's blog. You can read the first part here.
I just needed a break
I wondered how I had gone from feeling totally fine in June to finding out I had breast cancer, having surgery, developing blood clots, being told I might have permanent damage, and then needing subsequent treatments in November.
In December, my close friend Julia passed away from cervical cancer. At the same time, my business was really struggling. I’d had to leave it in the care of someone else after I had my diagnosis and it wasn’t going well.
My mental health had already been hit hard, and I was really struggling in January and February of 2020. In that last year, my dog had also died of cancer – just after I was diagnosed. I just felt like I needed a break.
I went to Dubai at the end of February thinking I was going to be able to come back, sort myself out, save my business, and get back on track.
When I returned, we went into lockdown.
Shielding meant I had to be alone
I live alone, so I was pretty much on my own 24/7. That’s when it got really bad. I was in a sort of catatonic state wondering what on Earth had happened to my life. It was awful. It now feels like one big blur, to be honest.
My friend Emma, who had secondary breast cancer, began going downhill quickly from March and I couldn’t see her.
I was shielding, but at times I just had to see people. I knew it was necessary to protect my physical health, but was it worth the cost of my mental health? I needed to see people to get by.
My saving grace was that I have dogs, so I would have to get up and walk them. Once I was up and about, I could sort of come around sometimes, but not all the time.
Cancer changed me, and I had to face that
At that point, I still hadn’t really spoken to anyone about my diagnosis. Because it had happened while Julia and Emma were very unwell, all our shared friends were preoccupied with that. I had just sort of blundered through it on my own.
People had been coming to see me all the time, of course, but it had just been a distraction. Then, as soon as I was left on my own for four months, I had to face it. It was probably a good thing, to be honest.
You change when you have cancer, but nobody else does. And that’s quite hard to get your head around. You have to figure out who you are now and how you fit into the world, and you unfortunately end up losing people, too.
I spent so much time grieving. For my friends, for my dog, for myself.
I reflected on how my life had been before
I didn’t seek any help at that time, and I can’t say in hindsight whether that was the right decision or not. When I look at where I am now, I'm not sure I would have got here if I hadn’t been able to do it on my own.
I realised during that time that I hadn’t been happy. I didn’t really enjoy my work, but I wouldn’t have stepped away from it had all this not happened. Now, I'm doing so many new things that I wasn’t before.
If you’d have asked me a year or two ago if I would have written a book, or began studying counselling and psychology, or started designing t-shirts, I’d think, who are you talking about? But that’s what I’m doing now.
I think some women process the emotional side of their diagnosis when they first get the news, but others, like me, face it all when the treatment is done. And that’s when it gets hard, because everyone else thinks that it’s over, but it’s not. It's very isolating.
Learning about mental health really helped
The forums are one of the best things out there because you get to speak to other ladies who are going through the same things as you, and nobody’s going to judge you. You can just go there and vent. It really helps to have someone else to reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal.
I didn’t really know what was happening to me. I didn’t know if it was lockdown, or because of Julia and Emma, or my business, my dog, my cancer. I just knew I had to get myself out of it.
So, I started trying to make myself healthier. I made sure I had a routine, that I got out of bed. I set myself little tasks to do every day. And one of those tasks was to start looking at online courses so that I could figure out what it was I wanted to do next.
I ended up reading about mental health and how people who have had cancer sometimes develop PTSD. I also came across someone who’d had a blood clot like I had, and she’d developed PTSD because of it.
Researching all that made me think about how much I had lost, and how it had all affected me.
It was important to share what I had gone through
I knew I had to do something to get better or else I would have died. I couldn’t keep going on the way I was. There didn’t seem much point in me staying alive, and I couldn’t imagine myself getting better. I was just numb. I would shuffle about all day, occasionally doing things to occupy myself, but it wasn’t making me feel any better.
So I signed up for some courses. There was a mental health first aid course that I found really helpful, and I took a psychology course that I loved. I had to learn how to use Zoom, how to adjust to this new technology.
I also followed the advice of a motivational speaker who had experienced a car crash and suffered PTSD as a result. One of the steps in his recovery process was to tell other people about what had happened to me, and to share what I had been through.
I thought I could get by without doing that, but then I realised I had to. I couldn’t exactly just blurt out all my stuff to a stranger, so I wrote it all down.
I realised that I could turn it into an e-book, so I taught myself how to do that. I decided to sell copies to raise money for the organisation that helped Emma when she was sick, and I put it on my social media and let people buy it if they wanted to.
That night, when I went to bed, I felt sick. I questioned what I'd done. I wanted to take it all back! But after a few days, the feedback I got was unbelievable.
I'd tried to make it funny because that’s how I deal with things, and I worried that people wouldn’t understand my sort of humour. But I had people who didn’t even know me telling me that it made them laugh and cry, and that’s what I wanted. I helped people understand cancer and grief a bit more, and I was happy about that.
There is a way out of depression
Now, I’m thinking about how I can make little care packages for people who are going into hospital for treatment. I've started designing things, and I love it.
If life hadn’t thrown me these challenges, I would never have done any of these things. I'm not scared of anything anymore. I don’t care about what other people think.
The funny thing is, I almost didn’t go for my mammogram. I'd pulled into the hospital car park and there were no spaces, so I drove off. But there was a little voice in my head that told me I had to go back.
Everything that has happened, especially given that two of my friends have died of cancer, made me think that I’m still here because I need to do something - and, for me, that’s helping other people. So that’s what I'm trying to do now.
The way out isn’t the same for everybody, but I think it’s important for people to see that there is one.
If you are struggling with mental health problems as a result of a breast cancer diagnosis, we have support services that may be able to help you.