Depression, Shame and Breast Cancer

Feelings of depression can be overwhelming after a diagnosis of breast cancer, and shame is often attached to those feelings.

I was struggling and was ashamed to admit what I already knew. I was suffering from depression. I don’t know how it creeped into my life, but I knew it wasn’t normal for me. I’ve always been upbeat and cheerful. I’ve never let my circumstances get me down. No matter what was going on in my life, I always found a way to rise above it. I always looked for the silver lining. But months ago, just before the holidays, I began to notice something was different in my thought patterns and behavior. Instead of being excited about the upcoming holidays, I became complacent. Holidays had always been such a joyful time for me. I would spend months of preparation making everything perfect. But this year, I just didn’t care. In fact, I didn’t care about anything. 

I found myself crying a lot and feeling like I didn’t matter. I started to stay home and isolate myself from family and friends. I didn’t want to communicate with them in any way because I knew, if I did, they’d be able to pick up on my sadness. I didn’t feel like trying to explain what was wrong because I really didn’t understand it myself. 

For many months, I’d been suffering from insomnia. No matter how tired I was when I went to bed, I couldn’t fall asleep. My brain didn’t want to turn off. Thoughts ran rampant through my mind. I’d toss and turn all night long and wake up feeling like I’d been in a fight. 

In the morning, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a worn out, disheveled mess. There before me stood a breastless shell of a woman. I felt disgust when I looked at her. As I turned to walk away, I just wanted to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. I had no desire to shower or get dressed. I just wanted to close my eyes and think about nothing. I was lethargic. 

Day in and day out, I made myself do the things that I was supposed to do. I wanted to give some semblance of normalcy to my husband so he wouldn’t notice my struggle. I did my best to keep things under wraps, but he noticed. When he asked me what was wrong, I burst into tears. I didn’t know how to explain my depression. I was ashamed. Depression wasn’t something I ever thought I’d experience in my lifetime. I didn’t know how to get out of it. 

As the spiral into depression grew deeper, I knew I had to do something. I could not fight this battle alone. I didn’t want to admit it, but I needed professional help. I contacted my oncologist’s office and let them know what I was experiencing. As I explained my symptoms, the doctor recommended two medications for me. The first was a sleeping aid. I was concerned about taking it because I didn’t want to become addicted or dependent on a pill to get to sleep. The doctor assured me this would be for a short period of time and it would just help my body get back on a normal sleep cycle. The second medication was an antidepressant. The doctor felt a low dose would help me get out of the funk I was in and help stabilize my mood. I trusted my doctor so I agreed to try the medications but I felt such embarrassment at having to divulge my problem. 

At the pharmacy, I picked up the new medications through the drive-thru window. Wearing thick black sunglasses, they couldn’t see the tears in my eyes as I paid the bill. When I got home, I read every single word of warning on both medications. There were so many side effects listed, I was afraid to take either of them. That evening, as instructed, I took the medications before bed. As I did, I prayed a silent prayer for God to protect me from any ill effects of the drugs. 

For the first night in many months, I slept like a rock. I woke up feeling rested and surprised. I was thankful the medication for insomnia worked so well. I hoped the medication for depression would do the same, but didn’t expect to see results as quickly. My doctor said it might take a couple of weeks before I’d notice the effects of the antidepressant. 

I took the antidepressant religiously. The first week, I couldn’t really tell any difference. I still felt depressed and sad. After the second week, I noticed I had more energy and I was starting to feel better. By the third week on the medication, I was feeling more like myself In fact, I was starting to have a good outlook on life again. Instead of holing myself up in my house, never wanting to go anywhere or do anything, I started wanting to be around people again. I started wanting to go places and do things. The medication was really working. 

There shouldn’t be a stigma of shame attached to feelings of depression. Many don’t understand depression or anxiety disorders. Often people don’t want to share their depression for fear of being stigmatized as crazy or unstable. Depression isn’t something we can control on our own and often requires medical intervention. There are varying degrees of depression and some are more severe than others. Stress, fatigue, insomnia and other health issues can contribute to depression.   

Here are some other signs you may be struggling with depression: 

1. Struggling with everyday tasks: Difficulty performing mundane tasks such as showering, getting out of bed, going to work, eating and participating in social activity may be a sign of depression.  

2. Inability to sleep: Tossing and turning all night without restful sleep could be masking a larger problem. 

3. Obsessive thinking or ruminating: Constantly thinking about things and refusing to let them go can contribute to insomnia and depression. 

4. Inability to work: Many people who experience depression find themselves missing work or calling in sick to avoid work. 

When your mood starts to interfere with your ability to function, you are may want to see a doctor about the possibility of depression. I read a quote once by a woman named Sapphire that says, “Depression is anger turned inward,” but I don’t agree with it. I feel like depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain or the result of a series of events that have caused a person to lose hope. Being diagnosed with breast cancer and losing both of my breasts had caused me to lose hope. Not only had it caused me to lose hope, it had severely damaged my self image. 

After being on the antidepressant for a few weeks, I felt better. I had allowed the devastation from breast cancer surgery to define me as worthless, ugly and hopeless. Perhaps I had suffered a small chemical imbalance in my brain that led to the initial depression; I may never know, but I know I’m grateful for the medication that has helped me overcome those feelings of despair. I am now able to live my life again and look forward to each day with hope. Feeling depressed was overwhelming and debilitating. I hope I never experience that again or the shame that goes along with it. The shame I suffered was self-imposed. I didn’t want anyone to know my secret, but there should never be feelings of shame associated with depression—never.