Mental Health and Cancer

As you may know, this week has been Mental Health Awareness Week and I wanted to share with you how cancer has affected my mental health from diagnosis to now, just 9 months on, as well as some simple coping strategies I have put in place to help reduce stress and manage my emotions.

There is nothing quite like a cancer diagnosis to mess with your head. Even if cancer is suspected prior to diagnosis, nothing prepares you for receiving that news. It’s a life changing event for both the patient and their loved ones and most people will feel a mixture of shock and disbelief in those initial days and weeks.

I found the whole diagnosis experience utterly surreal. After leaving the hospital that afternoon, I had to have some really difficult conversations with loved ones and friends and whilst everyone fell apart around me, I remember just feeling really calm. In fact, I think I praised myself for handling it so well.

Hmmmm…….

In fact, what I was actually feeling, was completely numb and detached, both from the diagnosis itself and those around me.

For the next few weeks, I just kind of “got on with it”, and was very much on autopilot. I don’t actually remember breaking down at all early on. I may have done, but sat here, right now, I can’t recall such a time. Denial? Looking back now….definitely! But not fear.

Photo by Nikko Macaspac on Upsplash

For me personally, I felt more fear, anger and sadness as time went on. Maybe this was because I didn’t access the support on offer in those early days to help me deal with the emotional side of cancer. I was just purely focused on how to support myself physically in order to cope with the chemotherapy I was having. And that worked. Physically, I felt great!

But emotionally?

No, let’s just push evvvvverything away and pretend like it’s not happening.

There was no way though that I could continue like this.

What I now know, is that this isn’t something that simply requires you to pop off for a quick round of treatment, be told everything is now ok, and then return to your old life…..if only!!! This is an ongoing, new way of living and even if I did beat this, I could never go back to how I used to live and exist. And to be honest, after all the work I’ve done, I would never want to! Tearing about like some crazy thing, in a permanent state of heightened anxiety. I could never “shut down” the negativity or the fear and sleep was a luxury I had long ago accepted was just not for me.

Typically, my emotions varied widely in the first couple of weeks. I would have days where I felt angry and could last for a day or two where I’d feel irritated and snappy but over time, I began to recognise that behind this, was actually fear, whether that was for an upcoming scan, test results or fear in regards to being forced into a situation where I had to face my own mortality. Then I may read something really positive about someone who had healed from their cancer and so I would be on an optimistic high. Fast forward a few more days, and I may feel calm and relaxed, having “accepted” my diagnosis and predicted early exit from this life. Then anger, then fear, then gratitude for waking up each new morning….

….and so on, and so on.

“My dark days made me strong. Or maybe I already was strong and they made me prove it” – Emery Lord, When We Collided

As if dealing with cancer wasn’t enough, and at a time where we all felt such isolation due to the global pandemic, I tested positive for Covid just after Christmas. I felt so exhausted (probably from the chemo and festive stress) that to then know I was also fighting Covid, increased my fear ten-fold. Surely my body can’t cope with both??

But it did, and pretty well too.

It was my head that couldn’t deal with it all and I broke, literally ended up on the floor, great big, heaving sobs.

I had to accept that investing into my mental health was as important in this as my physical.

I had learnt some time previously that stress causes cancer to spread as well as wreaking havoc on your immune system but hadn’t taken the time out to look at stress reduction, too wrapped up in diet, exercise and supplements. Then I signed up for Square 1 course, available through Chris Beat Cancer and in one of his videos, he states that you can make all the lifestyle changes you want but if you don’t have a grip on your stress levels, you can forget making a good recovery.

This was a turning point for me. I decided to try meditation again, something I previously struggled to commit to. I am by design, a very restless person and have constantly struggled to switch off and sleep at night. On the recommendation of friends, I tried several types of meditation and rarely completed one. Luckily, I came across some Deepak Chopra guided meditations available through FitBit and because they were anything from 1-20ish minutes, I stuck with it….and loved it!

Yoga Nidra (click on link) was also incredibly useful for helping reduce all the chatter in my head, reducing my heart rate and increasing the amount of restful sleep I got.

Once I found what worked for me, I increased the time I spent meditating. Sometimes I still struggle to relax, especially since starting my new treatment which can make me really fidgety. But, I stick with it as it is a major part of my healing now but at the same time, if I am unable to do this, that is fine and I don’t beat myself up over it.

If you haven’t looked meditation (of any kind) before, I urge you to try a few. I have noticed a huge difference in my mood, feeling a lot calmer and have developed the ability to take a step back when I recognise my fear or anger surfacing before reacting negatively.

Depending on the situation and severity, of course, this is not always possible. Humans are emotional beings and the mind is a complicated thing.

Looking after our mental health is as important as looking after our physical being, and never more so than when you are coping with the trauma of cancer. This week, I began looking at things I’ve put in place to help me relax and reduce stress. I have an ever-growing list of ways that I find helpful and you might find it a good idea to jot your own down as it’s easy to get caught up with the many worries that come with this. At times, I felt utterly overwhelmed with them, one concern turning into two, three, four more etc. I needed to distract myself from them before they consumed me.

Photo by Simon Rae on Upsplash

Here is a short list of what I have found works for me:

Gardening – I have always been interested in gardening but just assumed this would become a hobby for when I retired. Then, like a lot of interests I intended to get involved in later on in life, I thought “why wait?”

Walking – Never underestimate the power of a good walk. I have several musical playlists depending on my mood at the time, and if possible, like to take myself off for a few miles.

Which leads me nicely onto –

Music – Whether I need energising, my spirits lifting or my mind quieting down, believe me, I have a playlist for it all.

Acupuncture – This was a late, and surprisingly pleasant edition to my stress management plan. The liver is believed to store emotions such as anger and resentment, so as this organ took a hard hit from cancer, I took myself off to have this “energy block” released. I had no idea that acupuncture could help in this way but I always found myself really calm and as if something has “lifted” afterwards. Reiki is next on my list.

Writing this blog – This way of journaling has been a wonderful outlet for me. I can look back and reflect on many areas of this journey.

Reading – For me, there is NOTHING quite like escaping into the pages of a good book and I don’t think I have ever read so much since being diagnosed. I quickly became part of my nightly routine to prepare me for better sleep, and it really does help me to switch off and rest.

Baths – I am most definitely a shower kind of girl and although I have always loved the idea of a nice, hot, relaxing soak, baths have just never been my thing. I’m either bored, too hot or too restless….or all 3. However, I learnt to love and appreciate the humble soak in the early days after my diagnosis when I was trying to address my lack of sleep issues. What I found was not only did it help ease some of the pain I was experiencing but also gave me some much needed time out, which, due to being in lockdown with the family, I rarely got.

Which is going to make my next one sound contradictory –

Spending time with family – I don’t mean just being around each other, I mean real quality time. I have a whole new appreciation for laughing, especially with the children. These moments are so precious and sadly, taken for granted.

Learning how the mind and emotions work – I genuinely find this relaxing. I have waded through a lot of books, articles and videos on this complex topic, in particular with regards to trauma and gaining a better level of understanding has helped me identify triggers and also how to deal with them better.

Despite all of the changes made, I still haven’t accessed counselling, but it’s on my to-do list. Talking to friends and family is helpful but having a professional who is not emotionally attached to you, really gives you the opportunity to vent your fears, anger, sadness or whatever other emotions you are feeling without judgement and from someone who can advise you on coping strategies of your own.

So, that was a pretty long winded account but so far, I have learnt the following:

  • You will have good days….enjoy them!
  • Equally, you will have bad days, no matter how positively you try to approach this….accept them and be kind to yourself just as you would a family member or a friend dealing with this.
  • If you are on social media, connect with other people living with cancer or their families. Facebook in particular has countless support groups. All you need to do is search your cancer and see what pops up in the results. Likewise for any other topic you may be interested in.
  • When feeling overwhelmed, take time out. Go for a walk, get a bath, call a friend or simply get into bed and have a snooze for a bit.
  • Emotions will change continously throughout this. I am now able to recognise when I’m slipping into a negative mindset and can lean on my self-care “toolkit”. Sometimes, nothing works, and that’s fine. I just accept it for what it is, sit with it knowing that things will (and do) get better.

Below, I have added a couple of links you may find useful.

https://www.macmillan.org.uk/

https://www.pennybrohn.org.uk/

Whether you are newly diagnosed or have been living with this for a while, feeling desperate or tackling this with a positive mindset, cancer is hard, especially one such as Cholangiocarcinoma, where, we are told the odds are so against us. You will, no doubt flit from one emotion to the next in the shortest space of time. Lean on others, get emotional support and find ways for you reduce your stress burden.

As always, I am only an email away.

Much love and strenth,

Megan x

“Live” with cancer

As I wrote in the previous post, it’s been a difficult couple of weeks, full of fear and pain. During this time, I thought the fear of a quick deterioration would kill all hope and break my spirit.

It’s this part of cancer that sucks for me.

Thankfully, the pain is easing somewhat and I’ve finally had a couple of decent night’s sleep.

During last night’s bath, I took some time to reflect on the last 8 months. So many days get lost or roll from one to the next when you are fighting cancer and every now and then, I like to take time out to think about how far I’ve come, what’s worked, what hasn’t and what lays ahead of me.

One thing that struck me was how, from the start of this, I have always been determined to live. Like most people, I have a long list of things I would like to see before I depart this beautiful planet of ours. Watching my children grow, flourish, get married, grandchildren and to be there for them when life’s obstacles get in the way. There are so many places I want to visit and goals I want to achieve. Goals that seemed so unobtainable BC (before cancer) but now, with a high level of gratitude for being alive and a new found confidence in myself, completely doable.

But, I couldn’t help feeling I was stuck in no man’s land.

In my planning for the future, for when I “beat” cancer, I forgot something….

I’m living now

What if I do succumb to this illness? Will all of my time since diagnosis be spent planning for a future I may not see?

Today….right now whilst typing this, I am alive and feeling relatively well.

Tomorrow, I will wake up to a brand new day, 24 hours to “do” things. In the pain, the fear, the anger and the sadness post diagnosis, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate this when we are told we are facing a death sentence in x number of weeks or months as the medics tell us. However determined we are to beat this, often the fear gets in the way of enjoying being alive right now.

Of course, for those who are in a great deal of pain, or who have made peace with their predicted fate, then getting out living may either not be physically possible or not something they desire. And this is fine. Everyone is entitled to deal with and feel how they wish.

So, although Covid restrictions are (still) putting a spanner in the works in terms of places to visit and loved ones to see, I plan to live for today.

However small, I will DO something every single day that makes me happy. For those days where I’m consumed with fear, I will watch something that makes me laugh. On days where I feel invincible, I will head on out and walk in some of the breath-taking countryside Yorkshire provides for us.

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.”
― A.A. Milne

Love and strength,

Megs x

The Power of Social Media for Support

When i was first diagnosed, i really didn’t know where to turn for support. All i had was a leaflet containing the phone number for Mcmillan (who are great, i might add). Due to the dire prognosis of Cholangiocarcinoma and the depressing “facts” and statistics i had come across, i felt even more alone and scared. What i was desperate to find, were stories and journeys of those who were facing the same diagnosis as well as a search for survivors (they are out there!) and how they had got to the ultimate goal.

I used Google to search for blogs but only came across one and unfortunately it was old and limited in content. So i decided social media was probably my best bet. For someone who has used Facebook for many years, i was surprised at how clueless i was when looking for support.

Eventually, i logged onto Instagram and in the search button, tentativley typed “Bile Duct Cancer” and “Cholagiocarcinoma”. Under “tags” i found lots of random photos from various people and organisations.

*Note: You will need to set up an account to view content on here.

As i was scrolling through some of the photos and posts, i saw one of a young lady with a big smile on her face and had to find out more about her. Like many cancer patients, she had used social media to document her journey, the ups and the downs but i was blown away at her positive attitude and the pure joy she found in everyday life. After commenting on one of her photos, explaining i had not long received my diagnosis and how happy i was to read how she was winning her battle with the disease, we began messaging and i cannot tell you the effect she had on me as someone further down the line.

She reached out to me, told me her full story and advised me on all manner of things, some of which hadn’t even occured to me right then. Through her initial support and guidance, i was able to research cancer (and boy did i do the research….it became a full time job!) and look into all areas of helping myself.

Through her support, i learnt that this was so much more than simply having chemotherapy or surgery. I had to do my part too and that was through nutrition, exercise, meditation and more….posts to come for all of these!

I had always been determined to beat this and was never going to just accept what i was told by doctors and she saw this determination (something she clearly by the bucketload) and her messages could not have been more encouraging or supportive, giving me the confidence to believe in myself, my abilities and my strength.

I have never met her (she is over the other side of the pond) but i absolutely consider her a dear friend…..and what’s more…..she has BEATEN cancer!!

Now, this is where Facebook really did help me. No longer using it to post photos of the kids or holidays, i found it an invaluable tool for connecting with others who were going through the same. Of course, there are some heartbreaking stories of loved ones who have passed and i never gets any easier to read.

There are though, some amazing groups you can join. I have listed these below. Some are purely for those diagnosed with Cholangiocarcinoma but i’ve also included groups that i have found along my journey so far as a result of my constant research into what i can do to help myself. These include a lot in regards to how nutrition can help and why as well as inspirational pages from people who have beaten their own cancer.

Nearly all of these have been by healing their bodies the natural way and there are some incredible stories on these which will give you so much hope and you will be amazed at what our bodies are capable of once we start truly looking after them.

  • Chris Beat Cancer
  • Cholangiocarcinoma Support Group
  • Healing Cancer Naturally
  • Gallbladder and Bile Duct Cancer Support Group
  • Jane McLelland Off Label Drugs for Cancer
  • Bile Duct – Cholangiocarcinoma – Cancer CCA

Those are just a few of what i follow but as you find out more and connect with others (if you wish to) you will find topics you can relate to or think may help in your journey. For example, although a vegetarian for over 30 years, i decided to go vegan after learning how dairy can actually feed this type of cancer, so i found some decent vegan based pages to join for inspiration and ideas.

I can honestly say that through these, and many more, pages/groups, my knowledge has grown no end and as a result, i no longer feel like i’m just exsisting, waiting for the inevitable to happen. I am in control way more than i ever thought was possible.

THIS is when social media does good

Megan x