I’ve realized that my forgetfulness and business of working multiple jobs through cancer might have actually helped my mental health.
“You don’t look sick.”
“You shouldn’t be working that hard with cancer; please take time for yourself.”
“How can you remember everything?How do you even hold down a job?”
“Why are you so open with your cancer?”
“You’re too young to have cancer”
Questions, opinions, constant updates and striving to balance everyone’s interest and concerns for my cancer can be time-consuming, overwhelming and emotional at times. Yet, it doesn’t ever upset nor stop me from being an open book about my cancer adventures. Mental health is critical to my functional wellbeing and survival of cancer.
Yet, I know my own mental health struggles are completely normal toadulthood because there are so many challenges of being an adult with cancer right now. I’m nearly 35, working full time with two jobs, (three if you count writing these articles), battling cancer and the typical responsibilities in the world of an average working adult (paying bills, owning a house, car repairs, etc).
Alongside the normal duties, my own brain doesn’t work the same because of the medications I take, and the side effects of chemo. I call it my “Dory brain.” I found so much love many years ago with Dory in the movie, “Finding Nemo.”Who knew that years later, she would be my spirit animal.
During chemo, my nurses warned me about “chemo brain,” which is how chemo can wear down our energy, and make us tired and forgetful, as well as when we try to think, it feels kind of “fuzzy.”Our thoughts might take longer, tasks might be harder to complete and basically, chemo wants to make us nap more often.
Now with stage 4 disease, several of my medications give me a permanent chemo brain. My “Dory Brain” is with me forever.
I’ve made peace with my Dory brain. Don’t get me wrong, it has its bad days where I’m tongue twisted, and I can’t remember anything for five seconds. I get stuck, I go in circles and you might find me on my way to Wallaby Lane, Australia, like in the movie.
For me, though, every day is a new day. Each morning, I barely remember the day before. Some of my most painful memories over the last few years, I do remember. I can remember really good ones, too, but I’m lucky in the sense that if it’s just a BLAH day, it doesn’t register on my scale of good or bad. I know deep down, my emotional health and wellbeing has been tested in the last few months since my latest scans and progression, but I can’t remember all those pains. So I thank my “Dory Brain” because I am blessed that it wasn’t so horrible to register on my scales (fish joke!)
Working two jobs is difficult, which some days I do wonder, “How do I handle it?” I have my full-time job that I work typical daytime hours, that gives me my health insurance (so grateful for). Then, I work another 25 hours part time at a home décor shop to help pay for medical bills, generate some extra income and save for our next bucket list item: a trip to Italy. It gives me purpose, creativity, motivation, something new to learn, and most of all, hope — hope that my body hasn’t stopped working at 34 to do all of this, and to continue to keep going despite the toxic medications running through my blood; hope that cancer hasn’t stopped any part of my work ethic to set goals for myself and my marriage; hope that I can handle this because I am young and not aging like the 87-year-old like I feel most days with this disease. Working two jobs has been a blessing in disguise; it has really helped my mental health the most out of all things over the last three months.
Back in September, after my recent scans informed me of progression of stage 4 breast cancer to my right hip, sacrum and additional spine lesions, I sank into some depression. I didn’t even know it at the time that I hit some of depression, but immediately I told my primary care doctor that I thought I needed help.
I asked for additional anxiety medication, which greatly helped. I started having additional migraines, so my neurologist increased my migraine medication, which also helped. I also started new cancer medications, and I fired my oncology team. No longer was I getting the mental, emotional or physical care I needed. Every blood draw was 12 pricks, and every IV draw I mentally dreaded because I knew it was an hour ordeal. I took back control, and I got rid of the toxic mental drain.
After I fired that care team, I switched to a different care team, making it the fourth care team, in underfive years. That fact alone stresses me out, and I knew I had to get it right this time. Turns out though, I did.
Every blood draw and IV prep, is one stick, two at most, with IV ultrasound machine. There is an oncology support team to assist with making appointments and there is a social worker there as a middle person for additional support. Between all that support, and having my two oncologists now, I feel incredibly supported and advocated for. I don’t feel like I must continuously fight for my own body anymore and protect it the same way I used to. As a result, my own mental health finally started to improve. Previously, at my last care team, my mental health suffered so greatly, that I honestly didn’t see it until the very end.
What I learned most about my own mental health through all of this is that even as cancer patients, we’re still drawn to comfort and routine, and starting over is especially difficult. Whether it's starting over at a job, oncology team, new medication, or even a new day, mental health is so critical to our daily life. It is part of who we are, how we behave, and it affects our moods and emotions, and how we interact with others.
If you’re like me, and you’re struggling in any way at all, it’s OK to ask for help, additional medication, a second opinion, a different doctor, a different nurse, a different medication or heck, boundaries because you just might need a little space. Just remember for December, we’ve made it almost another trip around the sun, and we should savor the days, especially the good ones. Those are worth remembering— take it from Dory!
For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.