Vanishing Future: Depression and Cancer

Photo by Alan Viau

Friday is World Mental Health Day with a focus on depression this year. Here is my story…

It was the darkest time of my life. A time where I could see no positive outcome. My future had vanished… and I slipped into a deep depression. Fighting cancer is one thing. Fighting cancer and battling depression is a double barrel of ugliness. Yet, somehow, I found a way forward inspired by yoga.

It was a three week span in November 2014 when I was diagnosed with three different unrelated cancers; bladder, kidney, and prostate. When I heard the word cancer my mind immediately associated it with the word death. With three cancers, I could only think that death was assured.

After all, fighting and beating one cancer is monumental. How could I conquer three of them? The odds were just too great. I could see no positive outcome to this situation. If one didn’t kill me another would. It seemed like my life was now a cruel cancer Russian roulette game. How many chances at pulling the trigger did I get?

It was the darkest hour of my life. I could see no possible positive outcome. I cursed that my life was not finished. I had not achieved what I wanted or done what I dreamed. My family would be without me… with time, I would be a fading distant memory.

I had been “down” at other points in my life. I was certainly unhappy with two job losses. Some family situations had tested my marriage. But in all those cases, I could do something about it. There were actions I could take towards resolution. I have always been an action oriented kind of person. But this time, I believed there was nothing that I, personally, could do. I descended into despair and depression.

It was another sleepless night. Fittingly, it was December 21. The winter solstice is the darkest day of the year and it matched my mood. I decided it was time that I perform a yoga sequence of moves called Sun Salutation. It was sunrise and it seemed like the right time to do it.

I started with my breathing and moving into the poses. By the second time through the set series of poses, I couldn’t get off the ground from the Cobra Pose. I was stuck. I became overwhelmed with a feeling of sadness. Such supreme sadness, that I wept uncontrollably. I wept that my work was incomplete. I cried that my existence was imperfect. I lamented at the impermanence of life. I was breathless.

A thought crept in. “Breathe.” And I did. I breathed some more, still immobile prone on the floor.

Breathe. Another thought came in. I could die at any moment. Not just from cancer, but from a car accident or a zombie attack. Any time you die – you can feel like your life is incomplete, imperfect and impermanent.

Breathe. More thoughts. At any time, I can live or die, it is never under my control. It is a fallacy to believe otherwise. My ultimate outcome is not mine to determine. I must let it go.

Breathe. So what can I do? Nothing and everything. I can do nothing about the outcome. Yet I can do everything about my Now. Just like I was engaged in my Sun Salutation, I can engage in life. I started with one pose and slowly, mindfully, breathed into the next pose. I could not go to the end of the sequence without purposefully attending to each pose, ensuring alignment of body and breath, of heart, mind and spirit. I could trust that as I accomplished each pose, I could move to the next pose and approach it with the same intense purposeful self-awareness.

Breathe. I tentatively moved into a Plank Pose. I found I could progress to Downward Dog. I finished the Sun Salutation with a grateful breath. And just like the light chased away the darkest night of the year, I began to see how I could walk towards my destiny.

What followed was a year and a half of multiple tests, waiting for results, three surgeries, recovery and periodic back to work. I kept meeting John at the Admitting desk, Mary at surgery prep, Deborah in pre-op and several floor nurses. They all seemed amazed that I kept showing up (in other words, I wasn’t dead). I gave directions to lost visitors in the hallways. I joked that the hospital should have a frequent visitor card for me. Each day was a blessing.

Although yoga was my biggest help, I also sought other assistance. My doctor first gave me an anti-depressant that helped with anxiety. That plus psychological counselling was helpful in getting me through some apprehensive moments. Later I went off it and on to another anti-depressant because I went from anxiety to brain fog. Again continued psychotherapy was useful in my progress.

In addition, knowing that I was not alone in my struggle was very encouraging. My wife and adult children were always loving. My boss and colleagues offered so much support. Having a network of concerned people around you makes you feel like you matter. They buoyed my spirits in my roller coaster ride to my unknown outcome.

In January, 2017, my doctor presented me with another “all clear” result. All my cancers were gone. I was still anxious and fearful until that point. Still suffering from edges of depression. But something clicked and in my mind, they are gone forever. I have emerged from the dark depths and now have my future back. I have hope. I can move from this pose to the next one and the next one.

This time of trial really made me examine what I was made of and what was important to me. My wife, family and other relationships have gained new importance. Being authentic, honest, true and loving are values by which I wish to live daily. Breathing, living every day mindfully, and letting go of fears, worries and outcomes are great lessons.

Finally, I have found, that for me, the purpose of life is not finding happiness. It is in finding beauty. Beauty is inspiring. I am beautiful. You are beautiful. Life is beautiful.

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