Journaling with Cancer

I often talk about the stress and the mental battle I went through with my melanoma diagnosis. Being diagnosed with cancer is INCREDIBLY stressful – nothing else compares, really – and it forces you to reevaluate your life. At the ripe old age of 31, I was trying to come to grips with all of life’s deepest questions. Why me? How did this happen? When all this is over, what do I want out of life? How is this going to change me? Am I living a life worth living?

My head would spin with questions every night, and instead of sleeping, the worry would take over. I knew my thoughts weren’t helping my mindset. I needed an outlet to clear my head.

I didn’t want to go to a shrink, though. I mean who does?? I’m not having suicidal thoughts and I’m not on the verge of breaking down. If my family found out, they would think that I wasn’t handling it well, and THAT would be a whole other stress-inducing problem. I just needed to vent.

So I started to write.

I started this blog as a journal. I started a garden journal. I started a ‘journal’ journal. And I started to write every chance I got.

It was such a relief to get allllll those thoughts out of my head. Writing them down seemed like instantly unloading all my crazy thoughts onto the paper – like cutting and pasting them from my head to the journal. It became my external hard drive, where my all my deepest thoughts were safe and sound.

Don’t know where to start? More info to come!

And slowly my mind felt more clear. I felt as though I could really face the day without those constant fears chirping in my head. My therapist became my journal – I could openly examine my thoughts and writing them down made me accept my own point of view more freely. My goals and aspirations became clearer. It was like venting to my best friend that would never tell another soul about what I had complained about that day.

You may think “this journaling stuff is only for teenagers to relieve their emotional angst”. Heck, when I started I thought it would save me the trouble of seeing a mental health professional. In researching the effects of journaling, however, I discovered it’s a lot more than both these things.

Journaling has been a habit of highly successful people for ages. Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss, and Oprah, just to name a few. Journaling their thoughts, ideas, dreams, and daily goals has helped them all attain amazing lives.

And my goal is to have an amazing life. I want to make my life worth living. Every day is a blessing, and keeping a journal is a way for me to reflect on what I have, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.

Do you keep a journal? How does it help you? Let me know in the comments!

The Mental Health Crisis in America

Mental health is one of the few places the medical field has absolutely FAILED in the US. And when I say failed, I mean failed with a big fat ‘F’. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, exit stage left kind of fail.

The numbers don’t lie. The statistics of how we’ve failed, and continue to do so, are staggering. Over half of American adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment, even to this day. Teenage depression rates are rising. 43.7 million Americans struggle with a diagnosable mental health disorder, which is over 18% of the population. These numbers even EXCLUDE developmental disorders and over 8% of adults in America who report having a substance or alcohol problem!

How can this BE? We’re in 2017, people! We can’t IGNORE over a quarter of the population!

We HAVE GOT to do better at helping those with mental health problems. Not tomorrow – TODAY!

This really hit home for me in a one-two punch. My friend’s brother, who had been struggling with depression, committed suicide. The following year, I was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t really soak in the hardship of my friend’s loss until I saw myself in a similar boat – struggling to keep myself afloat mentally and physically.

Mental health problems can affect any one of us. Our friends, our family, and ourselves. Just like breaking a leg or having cancer, treatment SHOULD be available to everyone. For any reason.

But it’s not.

No matter how you slice it, millions of Americans struggle with mental health…every….single….day.

You can find many more statistics and resources at http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/

I found myself struggling with anxiety and depression after my diagnosis. I couldn’t accept that cancer could happen to me. I became terrified of the sun’s UV “death rays” and scared of being in the sun (see my post about conquering that fear here). My entire career has been in healthcare, but I developed “white coat syndrome” – it’s a real thing – where before every appointment or scan, I would sit in the waiting room, sweating profusely with my blood pressure and heart rate skyrocketing. My dread and anxiety when seeing the doctor became the norm.

Does this sound familiar?

When I finally decided to take control of my thoughts and emotions, things slowly became better. I decided that cancer may take my body, but I wouldn’t let it take my soul. I became stronger mentally and started to bail out the sinking ship to weather the storm. I did this through mind-body connection methods such as mindfulness meditation and journaling that I discuss in this blog.

Many people can do this same thing and eventually bail themselves out. Many others, however, need professional help to lead them in the right direction through the storm.

BOTH methods towards mental health simply DO NOT have enough support out there. Those who want to take control of their thoughts on their own don’t have enough support. And those who need professional help don’t have easy access to professionals.

We HAVE GOT to help each other and ourselves. We need to acknowledge that America needs better access to mental health services. Ignoring this problem won’t make it go away. And every day, more and more people are struggling.

Mental health doesn’t have to be this way. If you see someone struggling, don’t ignore the symptoms. If you need help, please reach out. Anxiety, depression, anger, and fear don’t have to be a daily part of your life.

Let’s admit America has a mental health problem.

Because as the saying goes, admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing the problem.

How I kicked my cancer fear to the curb

Recently, I’ve had many people ask me one of the most important (but most overlooked) questions about cancer treatment. How did I learn to cope?

I don’t mean physically cope with getting through the treatments. Coping with treatments and healing after surgery is really just ‘grin and bear it’. There’s no secret to physically getting through treatment – you just have to put on your rally cap and fight like hell.

But how do you MENTALLY cope with cancer? How do you endure a diagnosis like stage 3 melanoma and NOT want to crawl into a hole and cry yourself to sleep?

Well, I have to admit, there was definitely a little bit of that for me – at first.

 

I’ve always said that cancer is more of a mental battle than a physical one. My melanoma diagnosis hit me very hard. I’m in healthcare – I should KNOW the warning signs. I should KNOW to take care of my own health first and foremost. But I put my changing/bleeding mole on the back burner while I worked 60 hours/week taking care of other people.

I felt a HUGE amount of guilt and blamed myself for months. I felt defeated. I felt lost. Why me? How could I do this to my family? What if I don’t make it? How am I supposed to live my life like this?

And then I gradually began to realize that this was a battle of wills. Much like any sport, the team with the best mental state wins. I was NOT going to let this stupid cancer win. This cancer was NOT going to bring down my spirit. If I was going to fight like hell physically, I also had to fight mentally. My whole being had to fight – and fight hard.

I knew the odds weren’t in my favor. I knew that melanoma defeating me was more of a likelihood than a possibility. At the age of 31, I had to come to grips with my own mortality in a very real way.

But you know what? As the old saying goes: there are only 2 certainties in this world – death and taxes. If my life was going to be cut short, I better make it a damn good one.

So I came to the conclusion: cancer may take my life. But cancer would NOT take my soul.

 

Sometimes you have to endure the rain to experience a rainbow

I have a soft spot for country music, and Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You Were Dying” to this day makes me cry. There’s something about facing death that makes you realize how precious life is – and you have to soak up EVERY MOMENT. Every day is truly a blessing.

Thousands of people have survived cancer and been given a second chance on life. And since treatment that has become my new mentality – I’ve been given a second chance at life. And you can’t have a full life when you’re constantly worried.

So I permanently shut off that leaky faucet of fears and guild and questions that kept creeping into my mind.

How did I do it? Mindfulness meditation.

I began reading books such as The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh and it made me realize that meditation doesn’t have to be all granola and incense and “ohm”. Just being mindful – learning to soak in every moment – was something we could all do. Soaking in the joys of everyday life has made me more grateful and more introspective about how I want to live.

Think about it. Think about what you want to accomplish in life. REALLY TRULY accomplish. Because YOU are the only one who can make these dreams a reality. YOU are the only one who can choose to live in a beautiful state rather than living every day in fear.

Because living in fear is no way to live. And I choose living a life that’s worth living. And so should you.

So say NO to the fears. Say NO to melanoma and cancer. Put your foot down and choose to take back your life. Start LIVING your life while you still can. It’s that simple.

So get out there and start living!!