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As a cancer survivor, I know all too well the struggles with depression and sadness. Fold in those grey winter days and It makes for a disastrous recipe.
For the person with cancer, the days between the end of winter and the beginning of spring can be especially challenging. Winter days are often dreary. The skies are gray, the trees are bare and the weather is chilly. A combination of those things coupled with pre-existing health challenges can cause a person to experience side effects of seasonal affective disorder, also known as” SAD” or the winter blues.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is considered a seasonal type of depression that lasts about four or five months out of the year. The depression can occur during winter or summer, but each season brings a different set of symptoms. During winter months, a person may feel more depressed, sluggish or sleepy finding it difficult to perform normal, everyday tasks due to a lack of energy. There may also be feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide. During summer months, a person affected by SAD may experience insomnia, anxiety, irritability or weight loss.
This year, I’ve found myself struggling with 3 Ds – depression, doubt and discouragement. Normally, I’m a happy, upbeat, optimistic person, but this year, there have been mitigating circumstances. I’ve lost several friends and loved ones to COVID-19. The grief has been overwhelming. I’ve also dealt with unexpected health issues and mounting medical bills. And then, there’s the nagging fear that cancer might just sneak up and bite me once again even though I’m currently in remission. It’s enough to send anyone into a downward spiral.
I’ve found myself teetering on the edge of distraction. It hasn’t been pretty, and I don’t like feeling this way, so I decided it was time to do something about it. I decided to implement small things into my daily routine that can help pull myself out of the pit.
One of the things I’ve found helpful is to flood my home with light. When it’s dreary outside, I open all the blinds, and turn on all the lights. Georgia Power (my utility company) loves me, but I don’t mind keeping my home well lit, especially when the weather is inclement, because it helps shift my focus.
I’ve also found that when I’m feeling down or discouraged, there could be a good reason for feeling that way. I may be overtired or may not have slept well the night before. One of the ways I can combat this is to give myself permission to nap. Recently, after struggling with daytime sleepiness, I mentioned the problem to my oncologist. He suggested a sleep study. I was hesitant thinking I’d have to go to a sleep center, be connected to massive amounts of wires, and be kept under observation by strangers. That didn’t appeal to me at all! Thankfully, the doctor assured me I could do the test at home. I was told I’d need to wear a small wrist monitor. It would not interfere with my sleep but would record my heart rate and breathing throughout the night. I happily agreed. I was shocked when the test results revealed I stopped breathing over 20 times per hour. Now I have a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that forces air into my lungs if I stop breathing during the night. What a difference it has made. Now I wake feeling rested.
I also found myself become depressed and discouraged while isolated. Since my immune system is low, I’ve tried to quarantine as much as possible during the pandemic, but that has kept me from being with loved ones and friends. Lately, I’ve tried to FaceTime as much as possible. I’ve even orchestrated Zoom meetings with friends, but when that didn’t do the trick, I invited them to my home. When they come, we follow social distancing guidelines as much as possible, but sometimes we sneak in a much-needed hug.
Every now and then, when I’m in the midst of a full-blown pity party, I’ll set the timer on my microwave for ten minutes. I give myself permission to be sad and I cry for that designated period of time. When the timer goes off and the alarm sounds, I know it’s time to get it together and regroup.
I’ve talked with many friends and I’ve found I’m not the lone ranger fighting off the deadly Ds. It’s comforting to realize others are struggling, too. This time of year is hard, but I keep telling myself “This too shall pass.” And every once in a while, I hear a little ditty in the back of my mind – a lilting tune, “The sun will come out tomorrow,” from the musical Annie. It’s a constant reminder these ugly winter days won’t last forever.
Seasonal depression is real. It can get out of control. If you find yourself spiraling into the pit of despair and suicidal thoughts overwhelm you, please get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifelinehas people you can talk to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their number is 800-273-8255.
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