I hesitate to venture into the topic of sorrow and what I perceive as treacherous terrain. I fear I may get too close to the edge, stumble as I become caught in the fog of grief’s emotions, and fall over the precipice. I have been on the slippery slopes of sorrow unable to catch a hand or foot hold. I was helpless as I slid deeper into distress. I am not certain I’ve hit the bottom of the pit. You see, each time I’ve been lost on this plummet someone lent a hand to help me.
The first time I plunged into this abyss followed my surgeon telling me, “we found cancer.” I was in shock and disbelief. Yep, I was immediately in the denial stage of grief while darkness loomed around me. I lost a long list of body parts that day, but the organs were only the beginning of my losses.
I had legitimate reasons to grieve. I not only lost my reproductive organs, I lost my excellent health, my independence was curtailed, and a much anticipated vacation with my spouse was cancelled. One day I was highly functioning at my vocation for 8-plus hours a day, teaching interns, consulting with colleagues on challenging cases, leading fitness classes, and arranging to take a vacation. The next day found me with a big abdominal incision, all my female organs removed, and a cancer diagnosis. I was in unknown territory and scared.
I rapidly and repeatedly cycled through the anger and depression stages of grief. With tears of anger I would think “Why me? I’m one of the healthiest people I know! This is not fair!” Then with tears of depression I would lament “Will this ever end? Will I ever stop crying? I’ve lost so much; I don’t know who I am anymore.” The nightmarish tailspin was so fast, it had to have been fueled by the diminishing supply of estrogen which couldn’t be resupplied because my ovaries had been removed. ARGH! To add to my frustration, I had an ER-positive cancer, therefore, no estrogen replacement for me!
I lost my sleeping partner to night sweats. Yes, the drenching kind that required changing the bed linens. Knowing my husband needed adequate sleep to stay sane, I took my weepy and sweaty self to the guest bedroom. One crazy and sleep deprived person in the house was enough. However, he would still see me at least partially naked in the kitchen. When daytime hot flashes occurred I tore off my clothes and stood at the open door of the freezer placing cold packs on my neck and chest. With freezing air billowing around my bald and hot and partially naked body I asked myself, “Is this my new normal sexy?” I never considered myself vain, but my sexy-self was challenged by some significant surgical scars and the loss of hair (everywhere). I briefly wrestled with this acceptance stage of grief because I immediately experienced anger and depression again.
As weeks progressed, my emotional swings became as chaotic as my body temperature. During a delightful dinner my husband prepared for me, I took offense to his tone during our conversation. I do not recall what we were talking about or what he said, I remember his tone of authority. I began to feel diminished. I had no resources to respond. I was empty and lost. I began to sob with self-pity. I rose from the table, ran to the bathroom, locked the door, cried into the towels, and wondered what happened to the cheerful me. My “happy-self” was added to my list of lost items. Hugging the bathroom towels, I felt every emotion of grief simultaneously: disbelief, anger, depression, bargaining, and some acceptance. At this point, my self-talk was loaded with bargaining pleas which all centered on the theme: What do I have to do to regain some semblance of myself?
I was rescued by my primary care physician. I went to see her for a terribly itchy rash that developed on my bald head. Her genuine compassionate queries had me cheerfully answering one question and tearfully responding to another. I was on a nightmarish emotional roller-coaster (my husband’s version of this period in our life is more dramatic). She persuaded me on the merits of an anti-depressant that would regulate my emotions and the hot-flashes. After a month on an anti-depressant I was stable enough to function and thought of returning to work. Thus, with my husband’s patience and the prescription medication from my primary care physician, I recovered from the surgery that wreaked havoc on my body and emotions, completed six rounds of chemotherapy, and gradually returned to my vocation. Did I finish grieving? Perhaps not, because I’ve been given additional opportunities to experience sorrow.
I don’t mean to be glib about grief. The fact I can relate with humor some of the troubles I’ve experienced informs me of my acceptance of the losses. The anguish of sorrow creates physical pain, emotional ache, social isolation, mental mayhem, and spiritual turmoil. To know grief is part of the human condition. However, to be stuck in grief, unable to get through to resolution, is not a healthy way to live. In fact, it is not living at all. Each time I’ve been consumed by depression and lost in its darkness, I was blessed to have a helping hand rescue me.
October is mental health awareness month with October 6, 2016 designated as National Depression Screening Day. To identify if you have signs of depression, please follow this linkhttp://www.webmd.com/depression/depression-assessment/default.htm# Answers to these questions can help to identify if you need a helping hand to stop your slide on the slippery slopes of sorrow.
Remember to discuss any of your symptoms (physical, emotional, mental, social, or spiritual) with your oncologist and/or primary care physician. A cancer diagnosis is a legitimate reason to experience depression. If you are cycling through the emotions of grief, for any reason, reach out in the darkness to hold onto one of the helping hands. You are not alone.