My name is Barbara Lynn Burn, and I live in a ‘two-light town’ named Athabasca, which is located in rural Alberta. I’m an Art Teacher in the public school system, and now, in light of COVID-19, I am beginning to teach Art online as well. May 2015 changed my world. This was the year that I found a golf ball-sized mass in my right breast and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
For years, I have struggled with a growth on my spine, which causes chronic pain, along with intestinal gastric problems. So, when I was diagnosed with cancer, it was another major issue added to my body. My cancer treatment plan was intensive, and I had major side effects for each treatment. I was angry and disappointed. My cancer treatments did not just affect me physically, I felt it mentally and emotionally. At first, I thought I was dealing with it all very well. But eventually, I discovered that underneath all my protective layers, there was a sadness deep inside of me. I would tell myself, “You’re strong, you’ve got this. Keep pushing. Keep smiling.” But then I got tired of pretending…the pain was too strong. I finally acknowledged, “I am depressed.” Boy, that was hard to say.
My depression affected every aspect of my life. I started to overeat and gain weight. The saying, “I’m stuffing my feelings down,” couldn’t have been more accurate as I stepped on the scale and realized I gained 60 pounds. I had a persistent sadness and feeling of being ’empty.’ There was a sense of pessimism and hopelessness that covered my days. I lost interest in creating art and journaling, which I actively did before the depression hit. I reached some meager points where I thought, “I have so many chronic conditions, why should I carry on? I’m tired, and I’m done.”
How does one get out of the well of depression? I took it day by day, and at times, moment by moment. I told my doctor, and we decided that being on anti-depressants would help me. I also went to counseling, sometimes every week, and it helped me get through the day. I made sure self-care was a priority. Even though I was tired from the depression, I made sure I moved my body every day. The endorphins released from exercise stimulated my brain and helped me feel more alive. I talked to friends and family, either in person, on the phone, or by text, and it helped to know they were there for me.
Finding out that depression is common among cancer patients really helped me because I realized that my experience was normal, and most importantly, that I wasn’t alone. If you too have cancer and are battling depression, anxiety, or other mental health struggles, know that you are not alone. Acknowledge your pain and ask for help.
I’ve fought many giants in my life—the growth on my spine, IG problems, cancer, and now depression. I have come out on the other side. I am thankful that I was truthful with myself and others. I’m grateful that I asked for help and validated my feelings. Cancer is just as much a mental battle as it is a physical one. It was through seeking help that I could heal. On a cloudy day, the sun is still there. If I can find the sun, I know you can too.
Barbara is a Junior and Senior High School Arts teacher from Athabasca. In 2015, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and has been a part of the Compassion House community ever since.