Tell Me About It

Since my illness, my marriage has ended, I’ve lost out on work, and my appearance has changed

Tell Me About It: ‘I feel down and hopeless since surviving cancer. I fear I am not living’

PROBLEM: I was diagnosed with cervical cancer several years ago. I am well now, which I am grateful for. As a result of cancer treatment, I have significant side effects such as complete incontinence and other physical issues.

In 2018 I found out I was one of the women whose smear test was misdiagnosed and, if it had been read correctly, I would not have got cancer.

Since my illness, my marriage has ended, I have lost a lot of work opportunities and my physical appearance has changed.

Every day I feel down and hopeless. Most of all I feel angry at how this happened to me and other women. I fear that I am not living life anymore. Instead, I am angry and depressed.

I would like to be able to get on with life instead of living like this, but it is so hard when I live with the side effects of cancer.

Additionally, every time I read of the death of a woman from cervical cancer it upsets me so much. I feel like no one cares.

ADVICE: You are traumatised and full of complicated grief for the things you have lost because of your cervical cancer. Your resentment and depression are natural responses to what has transpired, and your anger and upset at the death of other women from cervical cancer demonstrates the injustice you feel at something that could perhaps have been prevented.

Yet, if you don’t do something with these responses, you will continue to suffer even though the cancer is gone. Do you think it might be possible for you to channel this energy into some kind of action? You could connect with one of the support or action groups around this (see cancer.ie, cancersupportcommunity.org, 221plus.ie). It might offer you two things: solidarity with people who have experienced the same as you have and a sense of purpose that you could utilise your experience.

You could also connect with others who have had life experiences with damaging effects, as this might offer you hope and faith in a future worth living. One such person is Jack Kavanagh who has had to deal with a severe spinal injury. You can connect with him on jack-kavanagh.com or listen to his inspiring and compassionate podcast called Only Human.

Many young people living with colostomy or ileostomy bags learn how to see themselves as sexual partners and work hard to view their bodies as deserving of pleasure

However, there is no doubting the huge implications you have to live with and, in spite of being cancer free, these implications take a huge amount of time to process and accept. Your incontinence and physical changes are daily reminders of how you have been forced into premature ageing and this loss of vitality and youth is difficult to acknowledge.

I wonder if you can reconnect with your body as something deserving of pleasure and kindness. This might involve treating it to a massage (when allowed), essential oils and any other senses-based connections that you can think of.

As you are feeling so low, it is unlikely you are thinking of future relationships or physical connection, but you might need to begin to challenge this notion in small ways. Many young people living with colostomy or ileostomy bags learn how to see themselves as sexual partners and work hard to view their bodies as deserving of pleasure. You are not alone in struggling with a body that is carrying the scars of survival and it is worth connecting with and learning from those who are also engaged in this struggle.

Demand the best

Your life is worth living and you must learn to demand the best for yourself. Working through the grief and sadness will require professional help and this process takes much longer than we often have patience for. Securing funding for this help and sourcing the right professional is crucial. Start with the cancer support groups for advice and referral options.

Not everyone has experienced the depth of suffering you have had, but everyone has been through tough times

You sound very alone in your plight and you plaintively say that you feel no one cares. This situation is not good for your mental health and so needs to be addressed immediately. Reaching out to family, relatives and friends can feel like a risky thing to do – the fear of rejection, combined with your vulnerability can feel enormous – but it is a crucial step towards healing.

Start with one person that you would like to connect with, be as honest in your message as you can be and don’t be ambiguous. For example, say: “I would love to connect with you as I’ve been having a tough time. Would you be available for a walk on Saturday or Sunday next?” All good connections require vulnerability and if you take a chance and make such a request you do two things: you value yourself by seeking connection and you grow courage by reaching out.

Not everyone has experienced the depth of suffering you have had, but everyone has been through tough times and they will be able to relate and connect with you. As contact progresses, you will become interested in their issues and struggles and this will draw you out of yourself and into a richer and more complete existence.

All healing begins with a first small step and then a second, so send this message now and don’t let your mind go to the negative possibilities. You need to feel cared for and this starts with opening up, at least to some people in your circle. It is hard to conjure up some optimism, given what you have been through, but small, considered steps will show you that the world is not as bleak as it appears right now.