The Emotional Side of Recovery

August 9, 2020
Bonnie Annis
Bonnie Annis

Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.

After a traumatic event, such as breast cancer, it's important for a person to self-monitor. Feelings of anxiety or depression can be debilitating, but there's no reason to suffer in silence.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, I knew it was going to be a tough road because I'd watched my mother-in-law go through breast cancer years earlier.

Although I didn't know everything that would come my way, I thought I was well-equipped to fight the disease. What I didn't realize was how difficult the battle would be. My doctors had made sure I knew about the changes my body would endure so I was ready for the physical trauma. But, no one said a thing about the emotional trauma I'd face. That was a big surprise.

My physical recovery went well. Of course, there were a few bumps in the road along the way, but my medical team quickly addressed those. What really concerned me was the way I was feeling emotionally. I'd find myself crying at the drop of a hat or feeling extremely anxious. Sometimes, I felt depressed. It felt like my emotions were all over the place. I'd always been so strong and suddenly, I felt like I was falling apart. I wondered what was happening to me.

I almost jumped out of my skin one day when a bag of rice I had forgotten to make a tear in to vent the steam exploded in the microwave. That's when I knew I needed help.

When I was making an appointment with the oncologist, I shared my problems. He listened with a sympathetic ear and explained anxiety and depression were common challenges patients face after cancer. Anxiety, he said, often occurred when someone was faced with a new challenge in life and felt frightened by the experience. Feeling shaky or nervous, having heart palpitations or rapid breathing were all symptoms of anxiety, he added.

Depression, according to the doctor, was when a person faced a challenge that seemed insurmountable causing the person to give up hope. It was common, he explained, for women to suffer from reactive depression, a short-term depression brought on by a traumatic event like breast cancer.

After an evaluation, the doctor felt I was suffering from post-cancer post-traumatic stress disorder and suggested a mild anti-anxiety medication.

I was hesitant about taking Xanax, but agreed to try a low dose for a few weeks. I chose not to share the information with family because I didn't want to face a barrage of questions or comments.

The medication proved helpful. After one dose, I felt more relaxed and at ease. I was thankful the doctor prescribed it.

A few months later, fearing I might become dependent on the medication, I asked to meet with a naturopath at the cancer treatment center who was very helpful. He advised a trial of Ashwagandha instead of Xanax. Ashwagandha, he explained, was an Ayurvedic herb used to treat anxiety. The Ashwagandha proved to be a wonderful replacement for Xanax.

Six years after my initial diagnosis, I still struggle with anxiety especially in crowded spaces, around loud noises, or in situations that are unfamiliar.

After a traumatic event, such as breast cancer, it's important for a person to self-monitor. Feelings of anxiety or depression can be debilitating, but there's no reason to suffer in silence.

A cancer diagnosis often comes with little to no warning. This can trigger the body's stress response. The mind perceives danger and the body begins to send hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into overdrive causing blood pressure to rise, the heart to race, and pupils to dilate.

The first step toward controlling anxiety is to identify the problem. Next, it might be helpful to take some deep breaths. Breathing in and out slowly will help calm a racing heart and ease a troubled mind. Ask yourself what it is you are afraid of and if the threat is real or a perceived one. It might be helpful to talk with someone about your concerns, whether it be a family member, a trusted friend, or a medical professional. You may also find using a technique called self-talk helpful. During a self-talk session, one speaks of encouragement like: "I can do this", "There's nothing to fear", and "This too, shall pass."

There's no shame in admitting a need for help. Cancer is an emotionally-trying disease. No one can predict when feelings of anxiety or depression may occur. It's a challenge to meet the physical demands of breast cancer, but it's also important to acknowledge the emotional side of cancer. Don't let emotional side effects become debilitating and know that it's OK to seek help.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and do not claim to be. The advice given in this post is based on personal experience but before implementing any of these treatments, please consult your physician.

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