Recovering – easier said than done!

I had breast cancer

At the time of my surgery, a poll of people’s comments to me would have registered number one comment as ‘You are being so strong’.  It was true, as putting one foot in front of the other and getting on with things as normally as possible, and trying to stop the experience affecting the children was the way I found myself coping.  It wasn’t an active decision; I think each person’s personality produces a natural response.

Although this approach allowed us to get back on track as fast as possible, it also meant I was able to avoid putting much energy at all into processing what had happened to me or into feeling the fear, sadness and shock of the events of 2009.  At the time, this worked.  But I think people close to us realised that maybe the coping was only skin deep, and underneath I was still in subconscious disbelief.

I kept myself busier than ever, and was pleased to answer people who asked how I was that I was absolutely fine.  I didn’t feel angry, I had never thought ‘why me?’, it was just something that had happened, with no explanation.  I had a flat tummy, my scars were mending well, and eventually the swelling around my breast went down and I was able to throw out the sports bras I’d had to support the surgery, and have normal ones again.

However, my original breasts had been an important part of me as a female, and my sense of attractiveness. In my imagination if any bloke had ever commented ‘nice pair!’ I would have replied ‘ah, but you don’t know what’s underneath – I’m only half there’.  Psychologically I found it a hard loss to get over, and although I have adapted to it and my brain has adjusted to the lack of sensation, I am aware of it every day.  I can make jokes about it now, though I don’t think I could allow anyone else to!  The kids and Nick were teasing me about swapping me for a ‘younger model’ Mum/wife – they thought they could ‘recycle’ me! To Nick I commented ‘Well I’m part recycled already!’ and we were both able to laugh.

What has helped me?

I became very unhappy, and eventually in early 2012 sought help from my GP following a big meltdown at home.  I didn’t know it was depression, but I did know I was not myself, and was struggling to cope at home.  All my energy was spent on being normal out and about, with friends and wider family, and then I would get back behind closed doors and be unable to function.  The list of problems I took with me to the doctor read:

Poor sleep, tearful & emotional, exhaustion after being in ‘normal’ company and shut-down at home, loss of temper, paranoia (friends don’t really like me, just being polite; I always say/do wrong thing)  forgetting EVERYTHING, severe lethargy, dropping things, low self-esteem, avoiding social things, strong desire to be by myself/escape, unaffectionate, unable to make even simple decisions leading to inaction, unable to organise myself, irritable, unreasonable, friends noticing I am not myself.

I had had to write it down as I knew I would not be able to say it all spontaneously; in the waiting room before my appointment I was shaking with nerves.  My GP did not seem at all surprised, and I was prescribed anti-depressants which started taking effect after just a week of side-effects while my body adjusted to the chemical change (feeling sick and extreme tiredness).    I started to feel myself again, saw things in perspective, was able to make decisions, read letters, remember things again. It was such a relief.  Looking back I realised that the depression had been building up for years, and when my best friend gave me a psychology paper on ‘Stress Reactions’ I saw where it had come from.  Based on that paper I believe that my brain chose ‘fight’ over ‘flight’ when I was going through breast cancer and I began to survive on adrenaline.  Too much adrenaline over a sustained period of time can cause damage to the hippocampus (part of the brain which processes information) and causes deterioration in memory and concentration, increases anxiety and depression of mood, and creates impression of being out of control.  So I realised that my problems were not just me being hopeless, they were a chemical imbalance that could be put right.

It was a huge relief and the newly regained perspective and self-assurance allowed me to re-visit my feelings about the mastectomy, and having had cancer.  I was able to accept its occurrence more, and to admit that it had been really awful, could have been more awful; that I probably prioritised things wrongly but that I can be excused for that.  I admit that it probably did affect my darling little girl when I had to say ‘no’ to proper cuddles and to carrying her, and kept flaking out and causing her worry, but know I should not blame myself for that now.  I still struggle with that though.   I didn’t help myself by not resting enough at the time, and by pushing myself to get back to normal, but that was the only way I could get through it and I thought that was what my family needed me to do.  Wrong!  It would have been better to have recognised these things sooner, and not to have been so ‘strong’, and then to have recovered more fully – mentally as well as physically.

I am hoping not to have the opportunity to use the lessons I have learnt.  But maybe by reading this, someone else will be helped to get through a similar experience, or you, reading this, might be able to offer someone suffering from breast cancer or serious illness a fuller understanding of some of the things they might be feeling.  I certainly gained from knowing someone at the time of my surgery who had recently been through the same.  Three years on, it was telling my endlessly caring family and friends about my depression that gave me the support I needed to deal with it, especially the handful of people (including Ed and Nicola) who metaphorically took me by the hand, and told me something that made me know they understood.  You know who you are. Thank you.

So if I am asked now ‘how are you’ (in that really meaningful kind of way!), I can answer truthfully.  Yes, I am really fine now, but it has been hard.  And I have needed more help than I would ever have imagined I would be able to accept.

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