When Your Dog Dies: Balancing Cancer and Depression

Cancer is an emotional challenge all by itself. Curiously enough, a cancer diagnosis gave me a new lease on my emotional life. But sometimes a person with the best of intentions will falter. Knowing when to seek help can save a life.

First, you cry. What comes next varies. When I was diagnosed with aggressive HER2-positive breast cancer at the age of 54, stage 2b, the second thing I did was throw out a stash of pills I had accumulated over the years. I tended to hope I would never kill myself, but it comforted me to know I had the option.

Seeking a more logical comfort zone, I had often utilized much more appropriate resources to mediate that conflict between my upbeat nature and an offbeat mood disorder that makes a person vulnerable to suicidal ideation, or suicide. I worked hard to stick to ideation: “Think, don't act!” Choose life, I would admonish myself, ferreting away pills. Being a poet has come in handy.

Even with poetry, an extended family, friends, medications, doctors, counselors, cats, dog, and a successful career in which I have won multiple awards for being excellent at one thing or the other (or both), suicide remained a resident in the recesses of my mind. I plotted too. In the pre-cancer scenario, I would hike up my favorite mountain, climb over a rock and go to sleep forever.

It is one thing to muse about digging your own grave and another thing altogether to be told you have a grave illness. One might think that a suicidal person would jump with joy, as if off a cliff, at the prospect of death. In my case, I learned, this was not true. When faced with cancer, I chose life. I tossed my stash.

Friends and family members (and cat and dog) were invaluable in helping me to choose life. Weeks after the mastectomy, just before I began chemo, some friends accompanied me on a hike up and down that mountain where I had imagined ending my life. After that, I kept a photo of all of us standing at the top of Virginia, smiling, close by.

The year that followed the cancer diagnosis evolved into one of the happiest years of my life. I was able to balance treatment (chemo, Herceptin [trastuzumab], radiation, physical therapy for lymphedema and so on) with work, family obligations, etc. "Etc." could seem daunting, sure. My mother went into hospice at the nursing home where I oversaw her care. My mother died. My dog died. A divorce was finalized.

What did any of that matter? I was alive. Cancer had cured my suicidal streak, or so I thought until I realized that it had only been in remission, the way my cancer is now — dormant. There was a rude awakening. A week after I finished the last infusion, exhausted, I found myself spiraling downward. I sought help to address a depression that began to consume me like wildfire.

Even so, the same week I began treatment for this depression, I managed to overdose on tranquilizers on Friday afternoon after work, after which, I am told, I called a few people on the phone. Thanks to a friend who contacted him, my 20-year-old son rushed home to save my life. He tells me that when the ER physician questioned me, I said, "My dog died."

With the help of my medical team, including a counselor, I now live with both cancer and a mood disorder in remission. I like to think that each health challenge has taught me something about how to deal with the other. I like to think that one day, when I die of natural causes, my son will take my ashes to the top of Mount Rogers along with Spot's and lay us to rest.