World Mental Health Day

Living With Anxiety And Depression

Gemma Savory

On World Mental Health Day, Bladder and Bowel Community Manager, Gemma Savory talks about how bowel cancer led to depression and anxiety.

When we talk about bladder and bowel conditions, we tend to only think of the physical symptoms that happen to our bodies. If we visit a doctor we may only mention the pain, discomfort or urgency that is going on in that one particular area. What we probably won’t do is talk about the mental pain and anguish that goes alongside living with a bladder or bowel disorder. The feelings of isolation or the fear of being outside of our comfort zone due to the risk of an accident. The pain that is going on inside our heads is just as important as the pain in our bodies and it is vital that people start opening up and talking about how these illnesses make us feel.

So I will start first… Four years ago, almost to the day actually, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I was both thunderstruck and relieved after months of going back and forth to my GP and being told there was nothing wrong with me. The treatment I underwent was truly awful, the surgeries painful and life changing, leaving with me with a permanent colostomy bag and the chemotherapy treatments leaving me physically weak and sick. Although the treatment was hard on my body, it was the impact that it had on my mind that hit me harder. I went from being an independent and fairly confident although quiet young woman to being constantly nervous and anxious, relying on my husband to be around as I would get scared that I would get ill if I was out by myself.  Simple tasks like showering would leave me exhausted and this is turn would cause panic attacks and it became a vicious cycle of associating getting ready with having panic attacks.

After my treatment, I grew in physical strength but my anxieties didn’t leave me, they just changed. Scans were now a very stressful time and I panicked about the cancer returning and I was very self conscious of my new patchwork body and managing the fact that I no longer had control over my bowel. Over the year, I worked hard to get back to ‘normal’ and built up my freelance business and signed up with a personal trainer to help me get my physical strength back, which in turn helped to boost my confidence and lessen my anxiety.

I then got the news that I hoped I would never get and found out that my cancer had returned and had spread to my lung. I was told I was incurable. My kidneys had also failed and in order to go back on to chemotherapy I also had to start haemodialysis; this broke me completely.

I was thrown back into two really aggressive treatments and with it returned my anxiety and this time an even darker cloud. I felt really out of control as there wasn’t a definitive treatment plan this time, it was about keeping me alive. The darkness would have me researching my own funeral, which would cause me to break down. The constant not knowing what was going to happen would cause panic attacks. I became even more withdrawn than the first time around. My life was divided between my home and the hospital, I couldn’t even go to the supermarket by myself as I would feel overwhelmed and confused in large crowds. Dialysis would leave me feeling trapped, attached to a machine several times a week, I would cry and panic and my depression became even more entrenched. I wondered what the point in anything was and would have days where I wouldn’t even get dressed and just sit all day like a zombie.

After a year of chemotherapy, I finally managed to get surgery to remove the tumours from my lung in July this year and back to a state of remission. I’m back in the scary scan zone but I’m working hard to get my mental health back under control. I started by forcing myself to go back out to the supermarket by myself. It sounds silly but it was a big achievement for me to push myself to do that. If I get cabin fever after being at home for too long, I force myself out and I find tools like meditation apps or getting to a yoga class alleviates feelings of panic.

I know that it can be difficult to get a counsellor, but I am lucky that I have been given access to one through my renal team. I’ve only had one session so far but plan to keep going to help me keep on top of feelings of being overwhelmed. My cancer may be physically gone but I think what it caused in my head will stay with me a lot longer. In fact, I don’t think it will ever completely leave me but that I will continue to find ways to manage it.

If your illness is causing your mental health to suffer, I urge you to talk to someone about it or visit your GP to help you find ways to cope. As the saying goes, a problem shared, is a problem halved.