Shadowing a cancer diagnosis, it is only natural for your world to fill with sadness, anger and grieving. Depression from your disease, on the other hand, takes its sweet time arriving before finally coasting into the forefront of your life. Slowly, hopelessness has a way of eventually collecting all the emotions necessary to interfere with day-to-day living.  And then…everything starts to feel bad. Once the shock wears off from your original cancer diagnosis, depression cleverly seeps in like a velvet glove and before you know it, you have cement feet. Been there. Done that. But there is a way to convert the blues into happiness.  Eventually, you arrive in a better place, but not before experiencing emotional meltdowns resulting from the realization your body played a very sneaky trick on you.

Wishing I had listened to my depression signals sooner, I should have realized that once the “treatment” act is over, the curtain rises and the audience is staring at you with a wide eyed “Now what?” I longed to stay wrapped so tightly in my post-surgery care, when thoughts of sinking lower never occurred to me.   As bad as it was, being cloaked in my own cancer world was like being wrapped in a blanket – a damn heavy, stinky, itchy blanket, but a blanket nonetheless. After treatment, that blanket had to fall off and sometimes it is hard to cope with reentering the workforce, managing your own emotions along with the expectations of those around you.

Just like babying the New Orleans delicacy known as a “roux,” all the ingredients of cancer – diagnosis, shock, treatment, surgery – blend and meld together perfectly just like the butter, flour, and heat for that delicious gumbo base. But instead of forming a delicious brown sauce, depression is a recipe that you didn’t intend to make and is a dish best served…well not at all.

Personally, my head was spinning with details about surviving until after I finished cancer treatment. Then the black clouds slowly drifted into my life and I began to sashay into the blues. Again, I didn’t realize or even think depression was a looming struggle. I was fully expecting to be grateful, humbled, full of sunshine beaming out of my face at children and the elderly…maybe that’s a stretch, but I certainly didn’t expect what I often describe the sudden descent: I fell into the black hole of Calcutta. Without a rope.

So it was time to kick into survivor mode. Instead of beating multiplying cancerous cells, I had to wrangle the rapidly expanding sense of dread. Staying distracted was my life-saver to the point of overbooking my life’s agenda. Depression tends to hold you hostage, making it so easy to become non-functioning. It becomes essential to be active and busy both physically and mentally. It could mean getting out of bed, putting on make-up, getting dressed up and having nowhere to go. That’s OK, those baby steps morph into bigger ones and it’s better to be wearing your favorite walking shoes with nowhere to go than wearing those cement shoes. Becoming busy causes you to feel better about yourself. Time to fill your days could mean matching your sock drawer or organizing your disheveled earring box. Anything that takes up time is a good thing no matter how mindless it seems. For me, my life-savers involved several methods.  I loved creating mixed-media collages and quirky sculptures so art therapy helped cured my blues. While still bald and very weak, my best friend spent the weekend with me while I fired up the hot glue gun and scattered the dining room table with every sequin and fabric imaginable. We had a factory going and at the end of the weekend, I was so exhausted and elated.  My blues were turning into aqua and pinks.

Another thing that made my aura colors brighter was reading my creative non-fiction stories on our local radio station.  Inside the broadcasting studio, no one could see I was rail thin and the effects of chemo in my face. Instead, I was recognized as a voice to make people laugh.  The more stories I wrote, the more outrageous they became. Cancer gave me a license to become my authentic self.

Finding ways to relax and having a daily schedule are so important in fighting depression during and after cancer. Keeping those doctor appointments and getting your body stronger keeps you in check. It’s a good thing to feel you are in control.   I never imagined that sitting in my patio and watching the birds jump from limb to limb would cause me to feel mellow. Noticing nature can be like liquid Valium. It is all so real and a huge part of our planet.

Lingering feelings of sadness will come and go after the cancer blues. Stay busy, remain active, fill your calendar and do whatever feels good – even if it’s watching cartoons or playing with coloring books. You’re not expected to paint the Mona Lisa, but turning those depression blues into aqua and pink will make your world feel so much more exciting. You’ve been through a lot, it’s time to make champagne out of grape juice and celebrate life.

Cindy Small
Cindy Small arrived in N. Alabama following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A native of New Orleans, she graduated from Tulane University with an undergraduate degree in Journalism and Masters in Historic Preservation Studies. She spends her spare time writing a weekly “Spotlight” column for The Decatur Daily as well as reading her non-fiction short stories on NPR. Published in various literary journals, her writings are always humorous added with a speck of arsenic.