GUEST POST: On beating cancer and depression – how adversity can be your friend

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Written and kindly donated by Jenny.

Hi everyone, I’m here to talk about how great my life is.

…No wait! Don’t switch off! This isn’t going to be a showreel of my highlights (you get enough of those on your Facebook news feed, right?). The fact is, I used to suffer from severe depression and anxiety, and I’ve been on one hell of a journey to get to where I am today – which is feeling more stable, secure and successful than I have at any point in my life before.

There was no sudden revelation; my recovery was a gradual process – and it began, of all things, with me being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

It was serious stuff. The cancer was stage four. It had spread all through my abdominal cavity and was slowly suffocating my internal organs. I was told I’d need to have an enormous surgical procedure, involving the removal of several internal organs, plus chemotherapy, or else face a slow and incredibly painful death.

The treatment process, they said, would itself be slow and incredibly painful – but at least I stood a good chance of coming out of it alive.

When I was diagnosed, and subsequently given the news that I would become infertile as a result of the surgery – which, by the way, I’d have to wait six months for, I was quite sure I’d fall apart.

Except I didn’t fall apart. In fact it was quite the opposite; I pulled myself together.

Unexpectedly, some kind of inner strength – or more accurately, inner stubbornness – kicked in, and I decided I wasn’t going to let this thing beat me. I just had to dig my heels in, grit my teeth and get through the next six months.

Depression, which for me had always felt like a kind of spiritual death, had floored me time and again… yet here I was, staring actual, physical death in the face and holding my ground.

My new-found stalwartness came as a surprise to pretty much everyone I knew, myself included. But looking back, I realise there were two important elements to which I owed my stoic attitude. The first was hope: I’d been offered a clear solution (the surgery) and that meant there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The second was that my problem was tangible, physical and very specific.

This sat in stark contrast to the intangible, implacable and seemingly hopeless/endless tangle of anxiety and depression that had beleaguered me for the previous two decades. Suddenly, I had a problem that people understood. Suddenly I had a problem I didn’t feel ashamed to talk about. I could ask people for their support and their patience, and receive it, no questions asked. People sympathised. They didn’t tell me to pull myself together, they didn’t tell me maybe I should get more fresh air or stop overthinking things or make me feel guilty and pathetic when I said I didn’t feel like meeting up. They were forgiving when I snapped at them, understanding when I cancelled social plans, and eager to come and see me when I needed cheering up.

Having that level of support from friends, family and co-workers helped to make my situation much more manageable. I didn’t suffer the same overwhelming feeling of ‘alone-ness’ that depression had always conferred on me.

The months passed. I carried on with life as normally as I could. During that time, on more than one occasion I briefly lost my grip and broke down, but never for more than a couple of hours at a time. Then came the big surgery and subsequent hospital stay – which were worse than I could ever have possibly imagined. Not only for the physical pain I endured, but also the horrible mental ‘blackness’ and semi-psychosis that gripped me, due to a combination of the meds I was given and the awful physical discomfort I was in. But I got through it all, and made a remarkably swift recovery – I was back at work within three months (albeit several organs lighter).

Since then, having been through two of the worst things that can happen to a person – severe depression, and severe cancer – I’ve often held the two diseases up against each other and compared them. And I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  1. For me, depression was a worse experience than cancer. Yep. Worse.
  1. However, if I can get through stage 4 cancer, I’m pretty sure I can get through anything.

Having that renewed faith in myself and my ability to cope with what life throws at me has been the number one contributing factor in my gradual recovery from depression and anxiety. It has also set in motion a chain reaction; it’s given me the courage and confidence to make a series of changes in my life, the combination of which has created a much more pleasant day-to-day existence for me. These days I work part-time, and from home. I have no horrendous commute to contend with every day, and I have plenty of spare time in which to indulge my biggest passion (making music). I live modestly, but not uncomfortably. I’ve got myself a couple of lovely furry pets, which provide both company and entertainment. I’ve moved to a nice quiet area where many of my good friends and family members are no more than a 20-minute drive away.

I’m not going to tell you that these days, I wake up every morning full of song, and simply bursting with gratitude at being alive, as many people who have ‘cheated death’ have a slightly irritating tendency to say. Basically life has settled back into being, well, just life. And sometimes life involves waking up in a terrible mood, or getting in a strop because there’s no milk in the fridge, or hating the guy in the car behind who is driving too close, or having a fat day, or a non-productive day, or a just-leave-me-the-fuck-alone day.

What I can tell you that my life after cancer is altogether different from the one I had before. I’ve changed my attitude to work and relationships, built in more time for fun and creativity, and stopped comparing myself so much with other people.

The number one best thing I feel I’ve given myself is space. Physical, mental, spiritual and emotional space. I’ve stripped away all of the things that weren’t really important to my life. Some of them used to feel important – like keeping up with my peers, and earning as much money as possible – but they just don’t anymore. And funnily enough, I’ve gone from always envying the lives of others to feeling like I’m now the one with the enviable life.

A simple, uncluttered, creative existence is what keeps me happy and healthy. I was in my early 30s when I finally figured it out, which isn’t too bad I guess… although it does kind of make me wish I’d had cancer when I was a lot younger! It seems adversity can turn out to be your closest ally, in the end.