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My Struggle With Depression, Anxiety and Cancer and How I'm Coping With it

"After a lengthy battle with cancer, my journey was made even more difficult by the added stress of acid reflux and esophageal achalasia. Three months went by in which I had to struggle through each day just to keep down any food that entered my system at all."

Struggled with:
Anxiety
Cancer
Depression

Helped by:
Religion
Therapy

Hello! Who are you?

Hello, My name is Chiara Howard (pronounced SHE-AIR-A) and I live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

I'm married to the love of my life with three children that keep me busy: a 19-year-old daughter, a 14-year-old son, and a 9-year-old son who loves sports just as much as his old man. We are a close family that loves spending time together playing games, going on road trips, or just hanging out watching TV. 

I love taking road trips across the country, roller skating, watching football games with friends, and attending WWE events whenever possible. Traveling has always been an important part of my life since it gives me the opportunity to discover new places and experience different cultures. 

I have become even more appreciative of life and try to take each day as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Although there are often stressful times in life, I try to embrace them with a positive attitude because it helps me stay focused on achieving goals that will benefit my family's future.

💡 By the way: Do you find it hard to be happy and in control of your life? It may not be your fault. If you want to start feeling better, we've condensed the information of 100's of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet to help you be more in control. 👇

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But it doesn't have to be! These 10 tips will protect you from anything that's trying to steal your happiness!

What is your struggle and when did it start?

I struggled with depression and anxiety for almost two decades. I started to feel the symptoms of depression in 2000 when I was 19 years old. At first, it was just a feeling of sadness that would come and go at random times, but eventually, it became more consistent and started to affect my life in more ways than one.

My depressive episodes would add up over time and become more intense. I would start to feel out of place, like nothing I did mattered or made a difference.

I also began to experience feelings of hopelessness, isolation, worthlessness, and anger. These feelings made it difficult for me to concentrate on simple tasks or even have conversations with other people.

My anxiety then developed as a result of these depressive episodes, making it hard for me to be around large groups or social settings due to fear of judgment or rejection from others.

On some days, this struggle can be overwhelming and can make daily life very difficult. But on other days, I take comfort in knowing that there are resources available for help such as therapy or medication if needed; as well as support from friends and family who are always there for me when I need them most.

As time goes on, my resilience grows stronger and the impact of my depression and anxiety has lessened significantly over the years.

Some backstory for my anxiety:

In 2015, I quit my full-time job to move my grandmother into our home and take care of her. She was diagnosed with Cancer twice, the last time was in March 2018 when the doctor told me “There is nothing else we could do for her”. Two days later, I received a phone call at 11:30 am from the nurse and my grandmother that she would be discharged today and that I should come by around 2 pm.

At 12:35 pm, I received a frantic call from the nurse, My grandmother is spitting up blood and I need to get there as soon as possible. She will probably need to be intubated. A ten-minute drive felt like an eternity. When I arrived at her room there were 10 nurses and doctors talking. The nurse told me they were cleaning her up. I said, okay. Then another nurse said, “I am so sorry”

I said sorry for what? She said, “she passed away, no one told you?”

I was in complete shock. What do you mean she died? I just talked to her an hour ago and she was being discharged in a few hours. How is this possible?

This was extremely devastating because my grandmother raised me since I was 5 years old and to me, she was my mother. 

This experience, which I have not gotten over, still impacts me every time I go to get a CT scan. That I will hear those same dreaded words that her doctor told me that day “There is nothing else they could do”.

It haunts me to this day, knowing that I am also battling cancer.

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

When I received the call from my doctor on a beautiful June day, fear took over and everything seemed to stand still. My life drastically changed in an instant as they uttered those words that no one ever wants to hear: "I'm sorry, you have cancer". 

In this moment of shock and confusion, it was like all of my senses were heightened, much more aware than before, almost wanting me to savor every single thing around me for what could be possibly the last time with clarity. Birds chirping away in nearby trees; details of a wooden fence becoming uncovered; the scent of summer air floating through the atmosphere...

Knowing there is strength found in unity during tough times such as these, I broke down into tears when telling my husband about being diagnosed with cancer. With his loving embrace, he held tight whilst reassuringly repeating ‘we got this’ – together we can fight any battle!

On August 27th of 2021, my health took a sharp turn for the worse. I was suddenly rushed to the ER with oxygen levels at 70%, I had fluid around my lungs. When consciousness returned after an uncertain week in ICU.

It was only then that everyone around us learned about our secret struggle with cancer. Despite my anxiety about facing questions without answers prior to this fateful day, hindsight has taught us not to underestimate the power of sharing one’s story even amidst doubt or fear.

This lesson couldn’t have been clearer months after my discharge. My, then eight-year-old told my husband “it really hurt that you didn’t tell us mom was sick”. 

It was at that moment we realized without even a warning, my three children could have lost their mother. Never would have had the chance to say goodbye or cherish the last moments.

👉 Share your story: Help thousands of people around the world by sharing your own story. We would love to publish your interview and have a positive impact on the world together. Learn more here.

Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

After a lengthy battle with cancer, my journey was made even more difficult by the added stress of acid reflux and esophageal achalasia. Three months went by in which I had to struggle through each day just to keep down any food that entered my system at all. 

As things seemed their bleakest, January 2022 brought me solace when I received an innovative feeding tube solution–giving me much-needed nutrition while simultaneously fighting off depression looming over every corner of life.

After three long, yet victorious months consisting mostly of patience and dedication, May 2022 saw one final victory: being able to take out this feeding tube once again after finally regaining enough strength on my own!

In July 2022, I was dealt a heartbreaking diagnosis, my CT scan revealed enlarged lymph nodes. Chemo wasn't the right option for me and we had to explore new treatments, namely the immunotherapy drug Keytruda. My insurance wouldn't cover the medicine; so when Merck offered free access to their medication I felt beyond grateful for their generosity. 

In January 2023, I was gripped with fear as I prepared for a CT scan that could determine my fate. With thoughts of suicide running through my head and concerns about my Keytruda treatment not being effective, it felt like an eternity before the results came back.

But at 3 pm on the very same day, joy washed over me when I heard from the doctor. Her judgment had come swiftly: My lymph nodes looked great; she was pleased with how things were going and we would continue using Keytruda! It's impossible to put into words what kind of relief this news brought after so much anxiety and uncertainty.

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

Talking with my husband about my thoughts of suicide helped me express myself and share my fears and concerns. We talked in a way that broke things down.

After a therapy session, my therapist suggested that I really take time to go through some helpful worksheets that helped me understand the cognitive distortions that I was experiencing. 

When I realized what I was thinking was not rational, it was very interesting to see on paper how my thoughts were controlling me with fear and anxiety.

Praying and talking with God also helped me deal with going to the CT scan and getting through this process on my own. 

Now, whenever I'm feeling down or overwhelmed by life's challenges, I know that immersing myself in something meaningful is the best way for me to take care of myself mentally and spiritually.

This has helped me develop resilience against any adversities that come my way throughout this journey called life!

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

I only shared this with my husband and a close friend. I did not want to talk to family and friends about this situation.  I feel like they have their own problems and I do not want to bother them with how I am feeling battling cancer. It is also very hard for people to relate to what you are going through. 

I do find it hard to talk about mental health struggles. You always get the same unwanted and ignorant advice from family and friends: 

  • "You shouldn’t feel that way, look at your beautiful family."
  • "Those traumas happened in the past, you need to get over them."

With such a common term as 'depression' being thrown around casually, it's important to understand the gravity of this mental health issue. What often is mistaken for bad days can be much more than that. And when someone you care about has been diagnosed with depression, it’s essential to take time to make sure you truly grasp what they are going through.

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

Know your body and trust in yourself. 

In March 2021, I experienced a terrifying episode of difficulty breathing that prompted me to visit the ER. After consulting with several specialists and having an extensive biopsy five three later in June 2022, it was confirmed to be cancer!

Looking back on this journey reminds me how important it is to listen to our bodies when something just doesn't seem right. 

If I had not listened enough for my warning signs earlier on, things might have become much more dire than they were.

With this story comes one single reminder: advocate for yourself if you sense anything out of the ordinary happening within your body - trust those gut instincts! You could be saving your own life.

With that said, I also want to share that you are not alone.

It is important to get the help and resources that you need to deal with mental health. Share your feelings with your family, friends, doctor, therapist, etc.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

There were no resources that helped me, except reading the daily prayers on my bible plan app YouVersion.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

If you want to learn more, I'm blogging on my website The Hacking Of Life. Or you can follow me on Instagram, LinkedIn, or Facebook!

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, we've condensed the information of 100's of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

hugo huijer

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Hugo
Hugo Huijer Founder of Tracking Happiness

Hi! I'm from the Netherlands, love skateboarding, ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). I consider myself to be a data junkie and have tracked my happiness for over 10 years.

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2 thoughts on “My Struggle With Depression, Anxiety and Cancer and How I'm Coping With it”

  1. Such a powerful article. I just know this will help others struggling with depression, anxiety or even cancer. Praying for you and your sweet family. Love you always. ❤️

    Reply
  2. Dear cousin! I’m so elated that your diagnosis of cancer, depression and anxiety did not destroy you. I remember the day you told me. I prayed like never before. I probably didn’t have the right words to say. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and condition with me. You are an amazing woman, mommy , wife and cousin.
    Hoping your story will help others. Love you , cousin Angel

    Reply

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