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As the warmth of Christmas becomes a much too distant memory, and the thaw of Spring hasn’t poked out from the bushes yet, its often a time when a heavy shouldered sadness rears its ugly head.
For sun lovers like me, a grey blanket of cloud can really get me down. Whether it’s the glow of the sun on the landscape, the warming rays on my face, or fake sun emanating from a light box, there’s nothing like brightness to lift the spirits. So, when I’m deprived of it for weeks on end, I’m one of the first people to get S.A.D., or seasonally affective disorder.
But as a cancer survivor, winter, for me, is also particularly tough. Every time I’ve been diagnosed it’s been winter. It’s cold, made doubly worse by a bald heat-radiating head. It’s miserable; I can’t even regain energy by sitting outside and taking a breath of fresh air and it never seems to end.
Which is why, for many cancer patients, ‘S.A.D.ness’ can turn into depression. In a report by U.S. News and the Mayo Clinic, up to 70% of cancer survivors will suffer depression along some part of their cancer journey. I’m guessing though, that the proportion which actually recognizes the fact and gets help is far, far, less. Even amongst cancer survivors, whose lives have been irrevocably turned upside down, there is still embarrassment and stigma to admitting needing emotional help, especially among men.
Women tend to seek out other women for mentorship, go along to support groups or talk to their physicians. Men, generally, tend to bottle up their feelings and carry on as if nothing had happened, when it’s plain for their loved ones, and friends, to see that they carry the emotional burden no less than anyone else.
As the Ad campaign says, “Depression hurts.” Sometimes, medication is the right route, other times one on-one-counseling can help, or larger support groups and cancer guilds can be a way to meet other survivors for companionship. The Los Alamos Council on Cancer publishes a list of cancer support resources on its website at http://www.losalamoscounciloncancer.org (click on Support Resources) and holds its own cancer support groups. It’s important to find whatever helps alleviate your depression, before it damages your emotional and physical well-being.
Being depressed robs you of all your strength. It’s like being alone at the bottom of a dark bleak pit with no way to climb out. Its claustrophobic, it’s soul-destroying, and increasingly, self-defeating, as it weakens your body’s ability to keep cancer at bay.
But what about all those cancer survivors we hear and see in the media, advocating for change, fundraising for others, looking as though depression has never been their foe. We see the smiling photos, hear the stories of bravery in the face of adversity, and the gung-ho determination to beat cancer at any cost. It’s no bad thing, but it can make other cancer survivors feel inadequate when they are struggling just to survive. But, behind the smiles, behind the inspiration and optimism, lies the truth of cancer: even those media heroes have probably had to tackle severe anxiety or depression at some point. But its having been there and come out the other side that makes survivors stronger.
On a warm sunny day, a single tear can easily be whisked away by the heat of the sun. A torrent of lament cannot. But with professional, or community support, what seems like an unceasing load to bear, can be lightened. Make the first step, and the clouds will part. And, even though what lies behind the smile will always bear the scars of a cancer journey, your face will increasingly radiate the joy of living.
Kay Kerbyson is an Associate of the Los Alamos Council on Cancer. Further information on resources for cancer survivors can be found at www.losalamoscounciloncancer.org or www.ovariancancertogether.org