CN: Cancer, melanoma, illness, surgery, exams, hospitals, anxiety,
depression, hypochondria, antidepressants,
therapy, trauma, chronic stress
The day they told me I had cancer I went home and ate a family-sized box of fish fingers. The nitty gritty details are as follows: 18 fish fingers, served with lashings of ketchup and a diagnosis of malignant melanoma. This feast came to define my eighteenth year of life. While I was expecting 2015 to be a standard meal of A-Level exams with a side of teenage crushes and acne, the dinner I was served was not even on the menu of my seventeen-year-old brain.
Melanoma is, put simply, a bit of a cheeky bastard. Unlike other forms of skin cancer, it has a rather astonishing ability to spread to other organs in the body. It has a nasty habit of infiltrating the bloodstream and lymphatic system and wrecking chaos. Thankfully, I was one of the lucky ones. Mine was caught at an early stage and removed in surgery. No further treatment was necessary. I returned to my A-Level revision with a neat collection of stitches and newfound aversion to breaded seafood.
And here lies my mistake: stitches removed and discharged from hospital treatment, I believed that this event was truly behind me. Nobody warned me of the insidious shadow that so often follows an experience like mine. Anxiety – the big C’s evil twin- creeped its way into my life just as I thought I was stepping into the sunshine. I spent my gap year learning what no one thought to tell me – recovering from cancer is about more than just finishing treatment and receiving the “all clear”.
“Recovering from cancer is about more than just finishing treatment and receiving the ‘all clear'”
Though my cancer diagnosis was at the end of 2015, the psychological effects of the event are still omnipresent in my life. They reached their peak during my gap year when I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and depression a few months later.
Having grown up hearing the term ‘hypochondriac’ thrown around jokingly, being diagnosed with hypochondria – otherwise termed health anxiety – was a bit of a sting. Whereas the cancer had affected my life in one very sudden blow, the health anxiety had creeped in slowly. Top of my list of fears was, and still is, that the cancer could return. Then came an unravelling of other possible but very unlikely health issues. I would spend hours a day compulsively researching symptoms and potential illnesses, make very regular GP appointments, and even ended up in A&E on one occasion having convinced both myself and my doctor that I had diabetes.
“Whereas the cancer had affected my life in one very sudden blow, the health anxiety had creeped in slowly”
I think the scariest thing to me, as someone who had never previously suffered with serious mental health issues, was that it was all entirely beyond my conscious control. While in the past I had seen hypochondriacs as nothing more than attention seekers, I learnt that hypochondria was a condition that led me to genuinely, wholeheartedly believe that I was very ill. Having been let down by careless doctors in the past, nothing could soothe my worries. The anxiety took over my life. It was terrifying.
When I begun to write this essay I thought about how recovering from cancer physically and mentally are two different things. While this is true to some extent, it is also true that the mind and the body are not separate. Throughout my year of severe hypochondria I was never diagnosed with any health issues that were not stress or mental health related. And yet I have never felt more physically unwell. My poor state of mental health left me with a unstoppable racing heart, lightheadedness, nausea, fatigue, IBS, severe stomach pain, headaches and the list goes on. Put simply, anxiety left my body feeling sicker than cancer ever did.
“My psychological scars are starting to wane. I’ve learnt that healing comes in many forms”
In short, a lot of my gap year was spent being really quite unwell. What was I to say when stories of gap year adventures were being swapped during freshers week? At what point do you tell your new friends that you didn’t get to go to Thailand for six months because you were too busy recovering from cancer? The plague of my Tragic Backstory still haunts me as friends ask harmless questions, expecting an answer that doesn’t involve mentions of antidepressants, therapy or trauma. Turns out, it’s generally frowned upon to mention your cancer and the chronic stress-induced diarrhoea its left you with during matriculation dinner.
February 4th 2018. World Cancer Day. Exactly two years and two months since my diagnosis. I am not cancer free in every sense of the word. Free of tumours and free of stitches. My surgery scar slowly fading. Still suffering the side effects of the diagnosis. Still haunted by my Tragic Backstory. My psychological scars are starting to wane. I’ve learnt that healing comes in many forms, perhaps the most important being that now, 24 months on, I can once again enjoy the soft crumby goodness of a fish finger sandwich.
Header image by Nick Savchenko