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Depression and Cancer: A Dangerous Cocktail

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Last year, my marriage almost disintegrated after a mere 21 months. Sure, there were faults on both sides; we had lost focus and somehow forgotten our vows. We took each other for granted. But the biggest culprit to this dangerous slope we were on was an enemy I had been battling for over a year: cancer.

To be clear, as I dealt with diagnoses and chemo and surgery and more chemo, my husband Dave was faithfully and bravely by my side. And I was strong. Faced with a dire, non-curable stage 4 appendiceal cancer, I fought the fight with a tenacity I didn't know I had. I tapped into this strength when I needed it most: as I spent 10 days in the hospital, recovering from a nine-hour surgery in which they removed all visible cancer in my abdomen and then poured in a heated chemo bath for 90 minutes. My surgery was deemed a success, and I was cancer-free. I should have been elated. Except I wasn't.

The end of my surgery marked the beginning of my marriage-shattering depression. Instead of focusing on the second chance at life that I was granted, I felt more like a ticking time bomb. I knew there was a high risk of recurrence, and I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. When I had cancer it was easier; my energy went into preparing for surgery and actively treating the disease with chemo. Afterwards was a whole new ball game.

My depression was deep and all-consuming. Friends and family noticed. My eyes had a vacant look, and my mind was always elsewhere. My closest girlfriends pooled together to get me a gratitude book to try to help me focus on the positives. And I'll never forget Googling suicide overdose methods on my way to Disneyland. Disneyland, the happiest place on earth!

To be clear, I was depressed for several reasons. I was scared my cancer would return, and I would suffer immensely and die. I was also coming out of fight mode and didn't know how to put it all behind me. After all, I was still getting scanned every three months. I felt like there was something wrong with me. Why couldn't I be happy that I was cancer-free?

The National Cancer Institute cites that post traumatic stress disorder runs between 3-10 percent in cancer patients. The incidence of the full syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder ranges from 3 percent to 4 percent in early-stage patients recently diagnosed to 35 percent in patients evaluated after treatment. When incidence of PTSD-like symptoms (not meeting the full diagnostic criteria) are measured, the rates are higher, ranging from 20 percent in patients with early-stage cancer to 80 percent in those with recurrent cancer.

My worst fears were realized mid last year when I was diagnosed with a recurrence. And once again I went into fight mode. I had my second major surgery in as many years last week (16-hour operation) and am currently recovering. I am cancer-free. I'm worried, and so is my husband, that the depression will return. After all, the doctors do think that the cancer is likely to return again; it's just a matter of time. And once again, I have been in fight mode and am now entering the watch-and-wait period.

To help cancer patients, most cancer centers offer the assistance of a social worker, or even go as far as to suggest antidepressants. I'm on two antidepressants that are my lifeline. I also had a newly-FDA-approved treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation. It worked like magic. And I go to therapy weekly.

Depression and cancer can be a dangerous cocktail. But I'm armed to tackle this beast. My marriage is too important... and so am I.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Please visit my Caring Bridge page to follow my story: www.caringbridge.org/visit/debbiefinkgreen

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