Don't Go Down the Rabbit Hole of Despair


Can cancer actually lift an individual out of the "rabbit hole" of despair?

Recently, I gave a program to a group of church youth leaders about my cancer journey. One of the women asked, “Have you always been this positive?” My college roommate was in the audience and we looked at each other and shook our heads. She explained that I had a rough time when she knew me 50 years ago, and I had to learn to be positive. I totally agreed.

Another time, a church member asked me how I was feeling. I admitted having some problems with the chemo and she exclaimed, “But you always seem so happy!”

As I thought over these comments, I realized something. I have been more positive and full of gratitude since I was diagnosed with cancer than I was before.

I wish I could say this is all because I am an upbeat and positive human being with a wonderful view of everything in life and always looking at the good instead of the bad. But the naked truth is that if I go down a rabbit hole of thinking bad thoughts and being negative, I will never come back up for air.

Looking back over my life, there was likely a diagnosis of a kind of depression that used to be called dysthymia. Now according to the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders, which is used to code illnesses for insurance companies and other agencies, the name has been changed to persistent depressive disorder or PDD. What this means is that an individual experiences underlying persistent and chronic depression for over two years.

I remember as a young child always feeling sad and anxious. I was never popular, bullied because of a hearing loss and being different, and wore a huge body aid. This depression exacerbated in my late 30s. I went to a fantastic psychologist, who told me his largest number of patients was my age. Either they had a career like me and wanted marriage and children, or were married early and had children and wanted a career. Either way, we all had unfinished business. I had not accomplished what I expected and was not even happy in my chosen job! He made me realize I needed a total change from a librarian to a counselor for people with disabilities. I went back to school and thrived. He taught me to cope with the depression and I wanted to do that for other people.

After I became a licensed professional counselor, I would talk to my clients when they were sad. I would state to them that the depression felt like you are under a blanket in darkness and cannot see the light to get out. I would offer to help them lift a corner of the blanket. They would look at me and say “You know…” as I nodded and told them I had been there.

I also believe that as we get older, we change through experience. Material things do not mean as much, friends and family mean more, and popularity is overrated. We often mature and realize our blessings, so life is good — until we are diagnosed with cancer. That is a blow to the gut that can send anyone reeling. I felt like I would spiral downward and did begin to. But my friends and family helped me pull out. I work very hard at being positive and some days are better than others.

One of my favorite chemo nurses told me that she loved working with cancer patients, because they felt grateful to be alive and were easier to work with compared to other types of nursing she did. Does cancer make us more positive? Did it make me more positive? In a sense it did. I learned one more huge characteristic that I need to know: gratitude. Many other cancer survivors share with me they feel the same way.

I am not a saint, I am not innately positive. I have an incurable cancer and am slowly having my cells die which sucks. I try not to go down that rabbit hole, but be thankful I am alive. Cancer has made me more positive with thankfulness for every single day.

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