The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Year Three: Mentally I’m… I Don’t Know

by Sheena Harris-WilliamsPatient, Neuroendocrine CancerJanuary 10, 2024View more posts from Sheena Harris-Williams

Who could ever forget 2020? Certainly not me. It will go down in history as a catastrophic year full of loss, grief, anguish, and unpredictability. If it wasn’t you yourself, you knew someone directly affected by the COVID-19 fallout: illness, job loss, struggling to stay afloat, etc. 2020 was an inescapable year. And I was no different…but for a different reason. My cancer was discovered on May 26th, 2020. The doctors didn’t know it was cancer yet. They still had to run tests and scans to confirm exactly what these masses were in my liver and pancreas. But based on my family history, I knew what it was.

No matter how you slice it and dice it, knowing you have cancer is a tough pill to swallow. Even if you know based on family history or other predetermining factors that it is likely you will develop cancer, it’s still a tough reality to stomach. You can never be too prepared to deal with it. I vividly remember crying on the side of my hospital bed while talking to the physician assistant, asking her if I would make it to my one-year wedding anniversary. Almost begging her to allow me this one last small favor, as if she had any control over the matter. However so much was still unknown at the time, even she couldn’t give me an idea of what exactly I was facing. She did her best to remain professional while wiping away tears of her own. Being in that dark place of knowing there is cancer in your body, doctors aren’t sure yet what type of cancer it is, or if it’s treatable or not is frightening. Prior to my hospital stint, I turned to Dr. Google to diagnose my IBS but when I found out it was actually cancer, I didn’t touch my phone again. In fact, I didn’t look at any of my paperwork from the hospital and doctors detailing my cancer for months. I could not accept it. I could not stomach the information. The PTSD from being trapped in a hospital alone receiving the worst news possible was enough for me. I could not process anything that would mentally take me back to that cold sterile hospital room.

Some of you may turn to Google to find answers while you wait. Others may think back to their family history and judge the situation through that lens. My only point of reference was my grandmother, who died of cancer almost 15 years ago to the date of my cancer discovery which originated in the same areas as mine. She was diagnosed on June 1st and died exactly one month later on July 1st. Based on these similarities and the manner in which doctors were speaking to me, I instantly knew I was dealing with a terminal outcome.

I knew if I miraculously survived this one-month period, I still wouldn’t have much longer to live. So I set a goal to at least reach my one-year wedding anniversary, which was five months away. Sadly, I also knew the life we planned was over. Instead of looking at new places to live, I was thinking of hospice facilities. Instead of planning a baby shower, I was preparing to preplan my own funeral. It was a complete 360 of the life I envisioned for myself.

After the doctors ran tests and did a biopsy, they determined I had stage 4, grade 3 pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. But despite how grave this all sounds, the oncologist said I could “live a very long time with this cancer. Years.” Turns out I was wrong about my prognosis. Learning that was the biggest gift anyone could have given me at that time. From that day on, I clung to the belief system that as long as I kept a positive attitude and maintained a strong faith in God, I would be alright.

Of course I knew this cancer journey would be tumultuous and life changing, but I thought it only started and ended on a physical level. My oncologist made me aware of all the physical changes that may occur and the side effects I’d experience from chemotherapy. Hearing all of this was hard to accept but I had God and positivity on my side. And on days I felt the cancer beginning to affect me on a mental level, my faith is what I clung onto. Then I would remind myself it could always be worse.

But that all went out the window when I found myself crying on the floor of my closet. I was completely and utterly broken. Here I was, a 30-year-old newlywed entrepreneur, adjusting to a new life with stage four cancer. In that moment and several other moments, I realized I had to come to terms with the fact life as I knew it was over. I remember coming home one night and throwing away my OPKs, didn’t need that anymore. I checked out mentally at work. My work just became the place I go to before coming back home and crawling in bed. I stopped communicating as frequently with people. On several nights, I took more than enough pills to soothe the hurt, the anguish brewing inside me. I updated my life insurance information to make sure all my affairs were in order. I set my life insurance and banking details in a place my family would be able to find them after I passed. If I physically hadn’t checked out yet, my soul was already six feet under.

Fast forward three years later, I’m still alive. Yes, I just passed my three-year cancerversary and I’m about to celebrate my four-year wedding anniversary with my wonderful husband. Every year around the time of my cancerversary, I do my best to remind myself of how far I’ve come. And I applaud myself for it. But on the flip side, I didn’t exactly have a game plan in place for surviving this long. And I also regret not making one. I spent (and wasted) time preparing for the end that I didn’t plan for the future. I was so paralyzed by fear when thinking of the future that I never took the time to think “what if.”

I’ve come to realize it’s your doctor’s job to treat you physically. It is our job to treat what is happening mentally. With the help of therapy, I’ve learned to find a sense of joy in the midst of uncertainty—a sense of purpose. Slowly I’ve been resurrecting my soul to live again. In the strangest of ways, cancer has introduced me to myself and has given me a level of wisdom it would take the average person years to acquire. No, I’m not living the life I hoped for but I am navigating this new path much better than before. I no longer wish to dwell on the blow cancer has dealt me. Of course, the grief is still there. But I now choose to appreciate the things I do have.

Join the Conversation!

Leave a comment below. Remember to keep it positive!