by Angie Giallourakis, Caregiver
It is a parent’s nightmare come to life when they are told their son or daughter has cancer. I vividly remember that moment when Steven was diagnosed with cancer. I can see the doctor’s expression, hear her words “malignant tumor in the L4 of the spine” and “approximately 40 metastases in the lungs” and then experiencing the feeling of complete and total horror.
Horror: a feeling of dread, panic, fear, apprehension and hysteria.
I think the word hysteria appropriately describes my initial response to my son’s diagnosis. It was like a nuclear explosion going off in my mind.
That first night after the initial diagnosis we were in a daze while sitting in Steven’s hospital room: Doctors and nurses came and went, emotional family members arrived, friends telephoned wanting to help, our priest arrived to help us pray, all in all it was a time of controlled chaos.
About two days later, when Steven was settled in his hospital room I was finally able to go home (as my husband then took the night shift). The following morning I was getting ready to depart for the hospital when my heart began beating at an incredibly fast pace. Since I had a history of this medical problem I thought it best to contact my physician. I telephoned the doctor’s office and reached a very responsive receptionist as I blurted “My heart is beating really fast and my son has cancer and I don’t know what to do!” Thankfully she calmly suggested I come in immediately. I thought she was very kind.
Once at the doctor’s office I was sent into an examination room. My doctor arrived, listened to me cry and tell my son’s story. Calmly she said, “how about you start taking Paxil and Xanax.”
“I’m not depressed,” I said.
“Well, it will help take the edge off,” she said.
I sat and listened to my physician, processed her comments and reflected for a moment or two and thought, “I don’t have a history of mental illness…I have never taken such medications.” But being an educated woman I knew that there were times that warranted the use of psychotropic drugs and perhaps this was one of those times.
It took me a few weeks to learn the best time of day to take the drugs. I learned that I couldn’t take my medication in the morning as prescribed because all I wanted to do was sleep. In addition, I almost took out the garage door with my car when I incorrectly gauged the space between the door and my vehicle. I also learned (right around that time) that the dosage for the Xanax was too strong. So with the approval of my physician I reduced the amount of Xanax I was taking.
The positive effects of the medications were that they helped me approach each day with a level head. I was able to compartmentalize my intellectual and emotional self. I was able to keep tears and feelings of anxiety at bay in order to support my son and spend time reading and learning as much as possible about his illness. In addition, I poured myself into weekly and sometimes daily email updates on my son’s health to family and friends who were anxiously waiting to hear the latest news. My email messages were a great source of release for me and allowed friends and family to feel in touch without intruding on our privacy.
Eventually my husband and I developed a routine, which in turn reduced some of the stress in our lives. It is amazing how such a horrible time in one’s life can be described as “routine” but there it is. In fact, most mental health professionals would agree that developing a routine (albeit a healthy one) during a very stressful time is quite normal.
So where does the depression fit in? Was I depressed during that time?
Mental health professionals have learned that depression can present itself in a variety of ways. Depression doesn’t have to be presented as a person who only wants to sleep all day (although there were times when I could have easily done so). Depression can manifest itself in one’s personal relationships, such as the desire to not speak to others, the unwillingness to socialize, the unwillingness to be part of the everyday world.
Depression can be subtle. There were times when my husband and I would just explode at each other because we were tremendously worried about our son. Our outbursts, fortunately, were short lived as we would recognize what was going on between us.
A perfect example of such a situation was when my husband (who was just trying to please me) wanted to know what I wanted for Christmas. However he kept saying, “Well what do you want? What do you want?”
All I heard was “WHAT DO YOU WANT???”
And all I could do was cry out loud, “WHAT DO I WANT??? I WANT MY SON TO BE WELL!!”
Such an emotionally draining time.
Although the medication “leveled me off” I was still able to experience my feelings. My emotional outbursts were limited to those private moments between my husband and me. Fortunately the love and respect we have for each other enabled us to endure that awful time in our lives.
We are now approximately eight years out since Steven’s first diagnosis of cancer when Stage Four Osteosarcoma loomed over us, and five years since his Secondary Acute Myelogenous Leukemia and Bone Marrow Transplant. Life has gradually improved because we see our son feeling better and living the life of a young college student.
Was I depressed? Probably. Am I depressed? Maybe.
The fear of cancer is always there but with each year it moves a little further away from the forefront of my mind. Occasionally I actually don’t think about cancer. My heart doesn’t always skip a beat when I look at my son. I have found ways to constructively deal with cancer, the unwelcome entity in our lives. My energies are expressed through advocacy and awareness building.
It is true that life is never the same when your child gets diagnosed with cancer. You can be guaranteed an emotional roller coaster ride. Be aware, however, that you are only human and therefore, should not be afraid to ask for help. And, if your doctor recommends medication, seriously consider taking it…your family may thank you.
Related Content: Depression and Anxiety
Angie Giallourakis, momcologist, AYA cancer advocate and community activist, Founder of the Steven G AYA Cancer Research Fund. Married to Harry. We have three wonderful sons: Phil, Nick, and Steven. You can learn about the Steven G Fund at www.fightconquercure.org