The survivor's guilt I felt after beating cancer left me suicidal

I was out on my morning walk back in early 2015 when I finally hit my own personal rock bottom.

I hadn’t gone out that morning with the intention of taking my own life, but as I pottered along the country lanes close to my home, the dark thoughts began to close in. I didn’t see any other way out. I felt lost.

Before I knew it, I was seriously contemplating taking my own life. Thankfully I brought myself back from the brink just in time with a moment of clarity, but it was a close call.

To the outside world, at the time, I ought to have been counting my lucky stars. Only a few months earlier I’d been given the all-clear after being treated for a slow-growing type of thyroid cancer. 

I remember the moment we left the consulting room and my husband Lee turned to me and asked: ‘Can we be happy now?’ 

I wanted to say ‘yes’ – for his sake and for my two boys – but deep down I felt numb. Somewhere during my treatment, I’d lost myself. 

What I didn’t realise is that we all have a choice – and I had chosen to be a victim by allowing other people to carry me. I could have chosen to fight and grow, in the same way I can choose to hit snooze or get up when the alarm goes off. It’s not always easy – but there is always a choice. 

Playing the role of the victim was easier – or so I thought. But in the long run it only made me feel worse about myself. Instead of growing, I allowed myself to become dependent on others. It reinforced the false belief that I wasn’t good enough, that I had no real worth.

My diagnosis took me away from my job as a classroom assistant for special needs children, which I loved. I underwent surgery in May 2014, followed by a radioactive iodine treatment, which meant I would be isolated in a hospital room for several days.  

One small capsule and I would be radioactive. Was my pee going to glow? After three days I was allowed to go home, but I wasn’t allowed to hug my boys. When they ran towards me I had to step back and tell them they couldn’t come any closer. Aged six and 10 they were confused and upset, which broke my heart.

It would have been easier to finish the isolation in hospital, because self-quarantining at home put me in a state of constant anxiety. I was so worried about contaminating our bed that I spent three nights on a blow-up on the floor. 

Cancer was an invisible illness for me up until my thyroidectomy, which left a scar on my throat. In hindsight I realise it had become my identity ‘the girl with cancer, the girl with the scar’. I was never embarrassed by it, I just accepted it. When it was gone I lost my identity, I lost myself. 

Although my cancer treatment was a success, it opened a floodgate of unprocessed emotions – shame, worthlessness and self loathing, stemming from a series of personal experiences, epilepsy and relationships. 

I could never bring myself to use the words ‘in remission’, but at the time I wasn’t sure why. In hindsight I think it was because a woman living nearby was terminally ill and I felt so guilty that I was lucky enough not to be in her situation. I hadn’t known her terribly well, she was the parent of a child in my son’s class. I was grateful to be alive, but I had survivor’s guilt.

Everything happened in a very short space of time. It was March 2014 when I was diagnosed, the thyroidectomy was in May 2014 and the treatment mid August 2014.

By 2015, I was in therapy, having been diagnosed firstly with depression, then anxiety, then both at the same time – with a touch of PTSD for good measure. 

I wasn’t ‘the girl with cancer’ any more – but who was I? 

One of the ways I found release was in self-harm. For a couple of years I hurt myself daily in small ways, covering up the evidence as best as I could.

Although I remained cancer-free, the road to recovery for my mental health was long, winding and full of potholes.  

Gradually, over the following months – and over a year after my cancer diagnosis – with the help of a counsellor from Action Cancer, I worked through the emotions I’d buried for so long. I learned coping mechanisms, which included taking long walks, affirmations and practising meditation. 

I put together a toolbox of techniques for self care including a gratitude journal, a buzz jar and reframing my thoughts. I never was able to take compliments, so I began calling them buzz moments. Anything that gave me a feel-good buzz was written down and put in a jar – then I could look at those comments anytime to give myself a boost. 

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