How Cancer in My Body Pushed Me to Take Care of My Mental Health
by Melissa Trevathan-Minnis, PhD
“Damn you for always being the fun one.”
My retort caught my startled husband – who had recently begun to relish the role of “fun” parent – off guard. My wound was piqued by my inability to pick my two-year-old son up after my surgeries and the effects of chemo zapping my energy, making me incapable of matching the boundless enthusiasm of a toddler. I was sure he was beginning to notice.
But Donald and I had unwittingly chosen our roles long ago – well before becoming parents and well before cancer. From the time we met ten years prior,
I was the adult, the overachiever, the studious one. He was the fun-loving life of the party, the one people couldn’t help but like. We were like magnets with opposite energies, drawn together to balance one another out. He would encourage me to have fun, and I would encourage him to create some order and goals in his life. It made for a happy match.
However, we all embody pathology. For me, it was my inaccessibly high standards of myself and those around me. Controlling my environment was how I felt safe. Accomplishments and achievements were a rush for me. Though we both endeavored to find balance, sometimes it takes a cataclysmic event to shake up your life and push you toward true healing. For me, that was cancer – stage III colon cancer.
After my diagnosis, I began to recognize the unrealistic pace I tended toward in life, the number of balls I tried to juggle at once. Even my extensive mental health training as a psychologist had not spared me from falling victim to my own impulses.
Mere months after being diagnosed with cancer, I sat in the living room of an investment property Donald and I had bought the year after we moved to Austin. The market had hit a rapid upswing and the two of us, toddler in tow, me just days after completing six months of chemo and multiple surgeries, were flipping this rental home to sell. True to form, I had wasted no time dragging us into our next adventure the moment my body would allow it.
Soon after, I was making plans to start a small business and taking on several writing projects, all while continuing my work as a psychologist and a professor. To be sure, I enjoyed my work and these side projects. However, I started to wonder what toll this level of activity might be taking on me. Sitting in that living room, covered in paint and laminate floor glue, I began to take stock of my life. I was doing too much.
There’s a thin line between strength and pathology. While my drive to achieve inspires me to accomplish great things, it can also be my greatest avenue for destruction. I regularly teeter on the edge of overwhelmed. I have a tough time saying no to opportunity, even when I’m already stretched too thin.
I don’t do it for acclaim, or wealth, or material goods. No, when I am busy and buzzing with ideas, I feel alive and excited. It’s almost as if I have an addiction to achievement. Like a Pac-Man on a relentless hunt for dots, I collect accomplishments, one after another after another.
However, a frenetic mind can lead to a diseased body, as mine did. My mind, while stimulated and buzzing with excitement, was also throbbing and begging me to slow down, to find balance, to practice contentment and self-care.
It took a cancerous, bleeding colon – a disease of the body – to make me pay attention to my mental health. The mind bleeds too, symbolically, just as our bodies do. But that sadly often goes ignored.
The Holistic Way Forward
There is no way to prove or disprove that my cancer was the result of my temperament or my tendency toward striving. What can be proven, however, is that there is a significant link between our minds and our bodies. Studies show that sustained, chronic stress can cause changes in both the brain and the body. Perfectionism, stress, poor self-care can all trigger a neurological stress response, which can put our health at risk.
Researchers at the University College London, for example, found that stress-related psychosocial factors are linked to an increased risk of cancer in otherwise healthy people. The study also revealed that this correlation resulted in decreased survival rates after a cancer diagnosis. And the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America Survey continually finds that stress over an extended period interferes with an individual’s ability to function normally. In fact, continued long-term chronic stress has been shown to result in the release of the hormone cortisol, which can shrink cells in the hippocampus and suppress the immune system.
This mind/body link makes holistic self-care a critical part of cancer recovery and healthy living. As cancer survivors, caring for our physical health means also taking care of our psychological and spiritual health. We must pace ourselves and find balance between work and play.
I’d be lying if I said that cancer cured me of my addiction to achievement. Instead, it was more of a balm, acting to ameliorate my ambitious tendencies. Despite a growing awareness of my problematic behavior, I’ve still said yes to many big things. Most of which I am excited about and proud of. However, there are still some to which perhaps I should have said no.
Alas, we do not reach enlightenment instantaneously. We are forever works in progress. But I am aware in new ways of my patterns. And I am continuing to work on being my best self, which for me sometimes means allowing myself to be less than best, less than perfect, less than overwhelmingly busy. It means knowing more quickly when to slow down and pace myself. It means recognizing when an enticing pursuit is not worth the energy or stress involved. After all, even Super Woman needs to rest.
Dr. Melissa Trevathan-Minnis is a licensed psychologist who is currently a psychology internship coordinator at Goddard College in Austin, TX. In her personal life, Melissa enjoys spending time with her family and their small zoo of rescued animals. She is also a stage IIIB colon cancer survivor. You can find her at DrTrevathanMinnis.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2021.
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