Cancer

How I Dug Myself Out Of My Post-Cancer Depression

When I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, I didn't realize that my bigger health battle would ultimately be with depression.

At 53, with her shoulder length blonde hair, contagious smile and petite yet curvy physique, Jennifer Madrid is the picture of health. Yet four years ago, the Southern California mother of three was fighting for life. After receiving a devastating cancer diagnosis, followed by two subsequent surgeries and chemotherapy, Madrid found herself on a downward spiral of depression. 

This is Jennifer’s story, as told by her to Linda Childers.

I have always been healthy and active until five years ago when I started experiencing some strange medical symptoms. At the time, I was working as an elementary school teacher and while it wasn’t unusual to feel tired after a long day at work, I was more fatigued than usual and I noticed my skin had a greenish tint to it. 

I was also experiencing breakthrough bleeding between menstrual periods, but at 48, I assumed I was going through perimenopause. I finally got to the point where I felt so bad, I made an appointment with my OB/GYN. After giving me a pelvic exam, he took a small tissue sample to send to Pathology. Two weeks later, I learned I had endometrial cancer.

My doctor scheduled me to have a total hysterectomy, where my fallopian tubes, cervix and uterus were removed. When the pathology report showed the cancer had spread, I underwent a second surgery to remove my ovaries. That was followed by a year of chemotherapy, followed by six months of light chemotherapy.

While my body started to heal, I began to struggle with difficult emotions.

While my body started to heal, I began to struggle with difficult emotions. Although my doctor gave me a positive prognosis, I couldn’t help wondering if the cancer might return. I also began having horrible neck pain and my doctor told me I needed to have spinal fusion surgery. The excruciating pain sent me over the edge and started me on a downward spiral of depression.

As a result of undergoing chemotherapy and my subsequent neck pain, I was unable to exercise for the first time in my life. Although people most often think of cancer patients losing weight, my oncologist said some women can gain weight when treated with chemo that also serves as an estrogen blocker. 

I realized I might put on a few pounds, but I was unprepared for the depression that also surfaced. I became an emotional eater and gained 80 pounds, which only compounded my feelings of depression. I didn’t want to leave the house, even though my sons and husband tried to cheer me up and encourage me to do some of the fun family activities we used to do together.

Overnight, my life had changed. I had always been employed, but during my cancer treatment, I couldn’t work. Exercising regularly at the gym was something I used to look forward to doing, but my chemo and neck pain left me feeling too weak to do much of anything. I became reclusive and had little interest in the activities that used to bring me joy.

While my doctors had warned me about some of the side effects I might experience as the result of my surgeries and cancer treatment, I didn’t realize at the time that having a hysterectomy and undergoing cancer treatment could also lead to depression. 

I didn’t realize at the time that having a hysterectomy and undergoing cancer treatment could also lead to depression. 

It was also hard for others to understand how I was feeling. My friends and family seemed to think that since I survived cancer, I should be happy for the second chance I’d been given. Instead, I was acutely aware of my own mortality and secretly mourning the loss of our culture’s ideal of womanhood. I couldn’t concentrate and found no interest in hobbies, such as reading, that I used to enjoy.

I know people meant well but it wasn’t helpful when they told me to “take a walk” or to “snap out of it.” I felt very much alone and discovered it was harder to talk about my depression than it was to discuss my cancer treatment. Sadly, there’s still so many misconceptions associated with depression. People think it’s the same as being sad and don’t realize it’s a real disease that takes time and treatment to manage. Not being able to talk openly with others about my feelings of depression only added to my guilt and shame.

Jen Madrid didn’t realize depression was ultimately as dangerous to her as cancer.

After five months, I realized I needed help in dealing with my depression. I confided to my doctor that I hadn’t felt like myself in months and he gave me a referral to a psychiatrist who put me on an anti-depressant. I continue to see the psychiatrist once a month, as he’s worked to manage and adjust my medication and I also see a psychologist once a week for talk therapy.

Talking with my psychologist has really helped. I learned it’s normal to have post-cancer depression and post-traumatic stress. I compare my feelings of depression to what it might feel like to wear aluminum foil as a wedding veil. At the worst of my depression, it felt as if I was wearing ten layers of foil, and as I continued with therapy, my layers slowly began to fall away. 

I still struggle with bouts of depression, but my therapist has taught me how to “get out of my head” when I start feeling down. I try to fill my days and keep busy and to not worry about things beyond my control. I’ve resumed going to the gym and even on days when I’m feeling depressed, I take a spin or yoga class which always makes me feel better. 

I’ve also lost the weight I put on and have gotten involved in raising awareness for cancer. I recently did a spinning event at my gym to raise money for cancer. Each participant secures sponsors and spins for two hours. All of the money we raise goes to a local mammography center.

After my cancer diagnosis, I felt like my body had betrayed me, but the reality is, my body still works and I’ve regained both my inner and external strength.

After my cancer diagnosis, I felt like my body had betrayed me, but the reality is, my body still works and I’ve regained both my inner and external strength. I wasn’t able to participate in the spinning fundraiser last year, but this year I felt strong and fit and had a great time.

I’ve also come to appreciate how much my husband and three sons, ages 26, 18, 16, went through as I battled cancer. When one member of the family is ill, it truly affects everyone in the family in different ways. 

I’m finally ready to embrace my future and begin working again and have been thinking about getting a part-time job at a preschool.

Last year, my son and I went to our local animal shelter and saw a two-year-old Australian Cattle Dog mix that we immediately fell in love with. It was obvious he had quite the personality, but that he had been through a lot. 

We adopted him and named him Ralphie. Initially, he wouldn’t let anyone touch him, but I take him on walks and my whole family has showered him with love. Now he likes to sit beside on the couch and put his head in my lap. I’m glad that we’ve helped Ralphie get better, but the reality is he’s helping me feel better too.