Depression and cancer are similar in many ways: both make you feel like s**t, can last for extended periods of time, and affect loved ones as well as yourself. The difference between them for me is that one made me want to die while the other made me fight for my life.
When I was barely twelve years old, I was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a childhood bone and soft tissue cancer that affects <1000 people per year in the United States where I live. I know it’s been said many times, many ways, but cancer sucks. During treatment as a kid, I was very isolated from peers. My mom became my best friend. I didn’t go to school for half of 6th grade and part of 7th grade, and I knew WAY more medical terms than any other average preteen. Still, I entered remission about ten months after treatment started and life went back to “normal.” Other than a strong aversion to hearing or saying the word “cancer,” I considered myself a happy, healthy-ish teenager with a high level of maturity.
Once I hit my junior year of high school, depression decided to creep into my life. I have a strong family history of depression, so I never linked it to cancer until way later on. I coped with my self-destructive habits and crying every night well enough until I moved away for college. What had seemed like a minor annoyance then began to rule my life. I slept through classes. I didn’t care about anything. I was always exhausted, always deeply, existentially sad, and always felt alone. The isolation this time didn’t stem from external factors such as the need to keep me away from germs, but from the depths of my self. “You’re worthless….stupid. Nobody likes you and they’re only hanging out with you because they pity you.” This was the constant soundtrack of my mind. I hit the lowest of the lows the winter of my third year at university. That was the first and only time I seriously considered killing myself.
If you’ve never experienced depression, whether situationally or chronically as I have, it’s hard to explain what it feels like to lose the most basic biological urge to preserve your own life. I would fantasize about crashing my car or stepping in front of a bus. It was like I had tunnel vision so narrow I couldn’t even imagine what it felt like to feel worthy of anything good.
A few months after this extreme bout of depression and nearly a decade after my initial diagnosis, my cancer came back. Mentally and emotionally, cancer treatments are extremely difficult to cope with. Yet again, I was removed from the majority of my social network. I even had to leave a group chat or two because I couldn’t handle my friends at school all talking about their lives while I felt that my life was on hold and the world was passing me by. Yet there was a different kind of grieving that came with my recurrence than what I had experienced with MDD (major depressive disorder): instead of feeling miserable for the state I was in, I was miserable about the ‘what ifs.’ What if treatment doesn’t work? What if my friends forget about me? What if I never graduate? What if I never get to have a career? Or get married? What if I die before I’m ready? I was isolated yet again not voluntarily, but by the frailty of my body. And this time, I wanted desperately to live.
Perhaps sometimes it takes the shock of visceral, fatal danger to value what was previously perceived as useless. If I’m being brutally honest with myself, having cancer again saved my life. It opened the doors to a magnificent young adult community of people like me all fighting for another day to experience life.
Of course with such a community, the heartache and depression continually arise—but now I am not alone. When I am triggered into a panic attack by the smell of hospital soap, there are people just a text or Snapchat away who understand. When one of our own dies too soon, I know I am not grieving the loss alone. Though I continue to battle my MDD and experience days where I truly don’t want to live, I think of all the extra chances I’ve had to live while my friends (Audrey, Dalton, Lisa, Dori, and Sami) were not given such an opportunity. Survivor guilt should not be a sole reason for living, I know, but it can be just enough to fall back on when I start having that tunnel vision.
I truly believe that human beings are fully integrated, completely physical, completely mental/emotional/spiritual beings. The mind-body connection is not one to be taken lightly. Mental illness and cancer often go hand in hand because the experience of survival is often traumatic for our bodies and psyches, and both illnesses permeate every aspect of life. Cancer treatments are physically draining (think fatigue, vomiting, anemia, etc.) but also take an emotional toll. Depression is thought of primarily as mental (sadness, loss of interest, despondency, etc.) but also has physical manifestations such as sleep problems or changes in appetite. Most of my friends in the cancer community have struggled with mental illness in addition to their cancer, and often cope with those effects for years after treatment. Cancer is the fourth leading cause of young adult death in the United States, and suicide is the second.
I don’t want to pre-suppose any causal links between the two illnesses I’ve been discussing in this post, but I do want to encourage people to share their stories. Whether you feel alone because you’re stuck in the hospital, or because you feel worthless, there are communities out there waiting to care for you, if only you’ll let them.
Emily Ward is a recent Colorado State University graduate currently doing a year of service with AmeriCorps as a Colorado Reading Corps literacy tutor. She has always loved to write, and found journaling and blogging to be excellent coping mechanisms during her two battles with Ewing’s sarcoma. Between reading with kids and writing for fun, Emily likes to drink too much coffee and be judged by her cat. She hopes that by sharing her most private thoughts on the internet, people will feel less alone.