In July 2012, our daughter was diagnosed with stage IV (metastatic) Wilms Tumor. What we thought was a 24 hour stomach bug was actually cancer. Our beautiful, free-spirited daughter had cancer and it was spreading rapidly throughout her body.
While I would love to share her whole journey, I think it would take a few posts--a series even. What I want to share here is how I discovered I needed help and how that help turned into an ongoing dependency.
About two months into treatment, I realized I needed to talk to someone. While I could relate to the parents at St. Jude, you get tired of talking about cancer. For me, it wasn’t the cancer I wanted to talk about, it was the constant fear that my daughter was going to die. Some days I would read over each potential side effect caused by her medications. I wanted to be ready when, not if, she started to present symptoms. I second guessed everything the oncologist told me. Yes, the doctor who went to medical school and had been researching and treating cancer for over 20 years. I second guessed them.
There were several nights that I stood over her sleeping body to make sure she was still breathing. What would I do if she didn’t make it? Simply put, as a parent, you are the one that makes everything okay. For the last 5 years, my husband and I kept B safe, healthy, and made sure that she felt loved. The day cancer came along, we lost all control. Control over her health and safety. It was a constant struggle and caused so much pain and fear. I had to accept that her medical team and CANCER were in control, not me.
The hospital offered counseling for patients, but not parents. However, they did have some wonderful resources. I spoke to B’s nurse and scheduled an appointment with a therapist. I’m not exactly sure what I hoped to gain from the first session--I was just looking forward to finally sharing all the thoughts that constantly cycled through my head. The doctor had no clue who I was, so I would use him like a journal or private diary. The difference is I would be able to vocalize my thoughts and for me, that was beneficial to my mental health.
The first appointment ended with a 4-week follow-up and prescription for Zoloft and anti-anxiety medication. It generally takes a few weeks for an anti-depressant to take effect and for you to notice the change. We hoped the Zoloft would help with the constant cycling thoughts. If I could minimize these, I could focus on the good in my life. Just because my daughter had cancer didn’t mean the entire world stopped.
The Zoloft worked and I continued through the motions the rest of our time in Memphis. When B finished therapy in February of 2013, we went back to Florida and life sort of returned to normal. There was no need to stay on the medication, so I slowly decreased my dose. But, the cancer returned and everything changed. It was then that I would actually process what had happened 10 months before. Breakdown after breakdown, fighting with my husband, nonstop crying… I felt like I was spiraling out of control. B’s doctor finally said something to me about my demeanor, and that’s when I knew I needed help again.
As I continued taking care of B, my husband and other children relocated to Memphis so our entire family could be together. In February of 2014, she was once again in remission and life was good. A few short weeks later I found out I was pregnant with baby number four. While most anti-depressants can be continued during pregnancy, I was afraid to take them, so once again I stopped.
On my 31st birthday and while I was 13 weeks pregnant, we found out the disease was back. Again. What the ever-loving crap was happening?! I worried that the stress from our situation would cause problems in my pregnancy. The following weeks would suck. Bad. I had awful morning sickness, but who was I to complain about a little nausea? B was puking too from the poison that was injected into her body. The next few months were awful. I was very unhappy and each day became harder and harder to get through. B’s options for treatment were slowly running out and my options for remaining sane were, too. While pregnant and off Zoloft, my daughter under went a stem cell transplant. I also had a severe panic attack. None of us were well.
Following the birth of our 4th child, I told myself I didn’t need medication. If I could get through a pregnancy without them, I could get through life without them. But I was wrong. It might be years before I stop letting cancer control my mind, or even my life. I have to give myself time and grace. I hate that it consumes so much of my happiness. However, I remind myself that no one knows how I feel but me, and it's my job to be well for my family.
My fear today is that I’ll always depend on medication to get me through. I think at this point, B has a much better chance of surviving this disease, but I’m incredibly afraid to let go of the drugs that erase the torture from my mind. I think my fears are genuine and understandable, but I don’t know if they would multiply if I weaned myself off my dependency. I do know and have always accepted that what will be with cancer, will be. Nothing I do can change that and I know we have done everything we can along the way.
My need for anti-depressants and anxiety meds to function are no different from someone else’s--maybe yours. The worst thing that’s happening to me may be different from you, but the intensity may be the same. You should never feel ashamed or guilty, we’re human and we can’t be expected to handle everything life throws at us alone.
My hope is that sharing my personal struggle reaches at least one person and lets them know that they’re not alone. None of us are, even during our darkest days. I appreciate each day I have with my family. I finally love myself and I'm thankful for a daughter who was patient during the darkest days of her own life.