Every day I’m here is a chance to be grateful, and both cancer and bipolar disorder have helped me see that.
I’ve struggled with intrusive thoughts for as long as I can remember.
I’ve spent weeks at a time without the ability to do anything but sleep when depression got its claws into me. I’ve also spent weeks at a time without the ability to shut my brain off.
Those weeks are spent reading a book a day and making irrationally impulsive decisions that inevitably get me into trouble one way or another.
All of that is just a long way of saying that I live with bipolar disorder.
It all came to a head in 2013 when I attempted to take my own life. I was not OK, and climbing out of that black hole was difficult.
About 5 years later, I had gotten back on track, met and married the love of my life, and had two beautiful kids I truly wanted to live for. Then I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma.
I didn’t realize how badly I wanted to live until I thought I might die.
A cancer diagnosis on its own is heavy. You don’t know what the outcome of treatment will be until it’s over and your pathology comes back clear — or not.
However, being diagnosed with cancer while also experiencing a mental illness can feel nearly impossible. At least it did for me.
I remember sitting up for hours every night trying to think of every possible outcome. I hoped for the best but planned for the worst, and — ultimately — I focused on all the wrong things.
I was told frequently that the body responds to positivity, but focusing on the positives seemed impossible. I wrote goodbye letters to family and friends, planned my own funeral in my head, and tried keeping busy as much as possible.
Still, it seemed like the only thing my brain returned to was the ultimate question, “What if I don’t make it?”
Since I’m here typing these words, I can tell you that I made it. In fact, I recently celebrated 4 years cancer-free. Celebrating a huge milestone like that is every survivor’s dream, right?
Mental health makes even the great days seem cloudy sometimes. It can be scary not only for the people around me but for myself.
I never truly know which version of myself I am going to wake up to. It could be the version of me that’s thankful for another day to live and be happy, or it could be the version of me that feels I’m living on borrowed time.
I read a story once where a woman described surviving cancer as being like walking around with a firearm placed at your temple all day, every single day.
Once you know cancer has grown in your body, it’s easy to think it will grow back, not simply that it can.
It’s easy to mistake every single ache and pain as you age as a false symptom of recurrence. I constantly find myself googling statistics and having full-blown panic attacks the moment something deviates from my “normal.”
I have spent days at a time hating my body for betraying the life that I had planned or for missing out on all the time that cancer treatment took from me and my family.
You might be thinking that this article is getting depressing, and you’re not wrong. However, life after cancer doesn’t have to be.
Now that I’ve reached my 4-year mark, I have been choosing to not only be a survivor of cancer but a thriver.
I write myself motivational sticky notes around my home to remind me of all the good I fought for. I write letters to my children often and try to tell them all the moments I’m thankful for each day that I’m still alive to witness.
I stand in the mirror, staring at my mastectomy scars, and talk to them. I must remind myself that those scars made me a more grateful version of the person I was before. I must live in the moments instead of the days, or that metaphorical firearm loaded at my temple seems heavy.
I still have days where intrusive thoughts of ending my own life creep in when I least expect them. In those moments, life seems impossible, and I immediately feel unhappy.
Shouldn’t I be thankful to be alive every moment of every day? Shouldn’t I love everything because I’m here to live it?
The simple answer is no.
People who have never had cancer have bad days, and it’s OK to not be OK sometimes.
The real trick is to talk with someone and let them know how I’m feeling. I list all the positive reasons I want to be alive. Then I spend the rest of the day focusing on those things and the tasks to achieve them one by one.
Mental health is the hardest thing I’ve survived aside from cancer, and until I’m old and gray, I won’t know if I have truly survived either.
However, every day I’m here is a chance to be grateful, and both cancer and bipolar disorder have helped me see that.
Medically reviewed on November 07, 2023
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