This piece of writing was inspired by a conversation with a friend with whom I recently reconnected. I met this particular individual many years ago when I was building a product to address mental health and burnout in front line workers. This was pre-pandemic, and sadly we closed it down because back then, it wasn’t something hospitals were willing to pay for. In pursuing this project, I spent over 2 years interviewing hundreds of clinicians about burnout. Despite knowing the theories and building frameworks to address this, ironically I still managed to fall back into the trap of burnout myself.
Everyone deals with a cancer diagnosis differently. I put blinders on. My oncologist encouraged me to keep working, so naturally, I took that to the extreme. I took exactly 4 days off during treatment, which lasted over 19 months. At the end of the 19 months, my well--built emotional dam came crashing down and the floodgates of emotion unleashed. When people hear this, I often get the, “you are so brave” response. Every time I hear that, I feel like an imposter. I don’t recall being brave. I recall being a coward. I wasn’t able to set healthy boundaries. I used work as a distraction, working harder than ever before. I felt like I had to prove that I was worthy of being employed during a period of time when having a job was a privilege. After navigating years of treatment and an unsustainable work-life balance (or the absence of it), I burned out.
I have always been a huge supporter of mental health. I have a therapist and have received my share of mental health support. For me, the struggles with mental health pre-, during- and post-cancer have been dramatically different. In looking for the right words to communicate how my struggles evolved throughout my cancer journey, I realized creating a visual would be the best way for me to describe my experience.
I have learned that mental health, at least for me, feels a lot different now than it did pre-cancer. I found that my traditional approaches to mental health started to fail me. I’m in the middle of trying to re-establish practices that are tailored to where I am right now in my journey. In particular, practicing breath work has become important to me. Managing burnout and anxiety has become a regular practice.
Part of what keeps me going is being surrounded by others on this journey. Whenever I feel a little off, I can rely on a small set of other women who have similar shared experiences. They have helped me hold my boundaries. In particular, conversations with Dr. Maeve Baechler consistently keep me grounded. She points out moments when I should take the break I’ve been putting off! Molly is my source of unconditional encouragement. Whenever I have an experience I think is weird, she’ll give me the validation that it’s not just in my head. They’ve helped me navigate the anxiety. In addition, Esther Perrel’s writing and podcasts have become a default source of comfort for me.
This brings me back to the coffee I had with my recently reunited friend. He made a keen observation: “For those of us who have experienced burnout, it’s what we do when we hit rock bottom that matters. We just have to get through it.”
Those of you who have gone through or are going through a traumatic experience know that being brave isn’t a choice. Yet, we wear the badge of bravery, heroism, and survivorship. What feels true and authentic is far from that. For me, it was not courage or bravery, but rather choice. The choice to take the treatment (or not). The choice to work (or not). The choice to manage anxiety. The choice to get through the burnout. The choice to accept the darkness. The choice to surround myself with people who I care for, and who care for me.
Manta Cares now offers support for anyone navigating the cancer experience. You can learn more on our website.