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Alice found it hard to maintain her mental health after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She talks about the need to focus on our mental health as well as our physical health.
Having lived with depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, I’ve gradually come to terms with the fact that sometimes my brain batters me with negative thoughts. When these negative thoughts come, it’s all too easy for me to spin into a pit of despair, a darkness that’s hard to see the way out of.
When I was 25, I noticed that my periods of low mood were getting longer and more pervasive. They were affecting my life in ways that were impossible to ignore. I recognised that I was no longer living ‘with’ depression, but I had reached a point where it was taking over my life. I saw a GP who said I appeared to be severely depressed. She referred me for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and suggested I begin taking antidepressants.
It was three days before my final CBT session that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. By this time, I was 26. In the space of four words, I went from a regular 26-year-old woman to a cancer patient. To paraphrase The Fresh Prince, my life got flipped upside down when I got my diagnosis.
What was going on in my brain quickly began playing second fiddle to the things I needed to do to prevent the cancer from getting any worse. I quickly slipped into cancer mode and everything I learned about maintaining my own mental health fell into a massive ditch at the side of the treatment road I was hurtling down at alarming speed. I no longer had time to think about the things my brain was telling me, because it was full up with cancer-related thoughts.
Before I really knew what was happening, after being told I had cancer, everything I’d learned in CBT evaporated. It was no longer a priority. My focus swiftly shifted to surviving. The self-care of checking my thoughts and their patterns felt superfluous after I was diagnosed. And I paid for not looking after my brain.
About half way through treatment, I found myself really struggling. Christmas 2015 saw me undergo my fourth chemotherapy session. I was exhausted in a way I can’t even begin to explain. My spirit was broken and I felt like I was losing myself. I got so low, I could practically feel the heat of the earth’s core licking at my feet. I had, as I think most cancer patients do, been questioning whether the treatment I was undergoing was worth it, but my brain’s tendency to spiral out of control meant I found myself in a very difficult place.
Coming out the other side of cancer treatment left me feeling desolate and my brain has been just as battered as all the other parts of my body. I’ve relied on various forms of counselling, further CBT and mindfulness-based mental health support programmes to help keep me on the right track. That’s why I believe Breast Cancer Care’s Share the Care campaign is so important. We need to make sure we’re giving as much of a focus to the mental health of patients as we are their physical health. Distressing thoughts need to be given the same gravitas as tumours.
In 2017, I decided to write about my experience of breast cancer and mental health in a book called Life, Lemons and Melons. We’re getting so much better at talking about the impact of cancer on a person’s mental health, but we don’t talk as much about how it affects those who’ve had mental health problems before diagnosis. I’m not saying their experience is better or worse - it just is what it is. But we need to ensure that everyone is adequately supported to deal with the carnage that cancer leaves behind, so those who survive go on to live long, healthy and happy lives.
My aim with Life, Lemons and Melons isn’t to speak for anyone who has been through either cancer or experienced difficulties with their mental health, but to make sure anyone who ever finds themselves in either of these boats never feels like they’re alone.
Find more hints and tips on taking care of your wellbeing after treatment in BECCA, our free app.