Social media became my lifeline as waves of fear, sadness, anger and confusion swept ashore with hurricane breast cancer.
Emotional distress came with the diagnosis. Experts in psychosocial oncology say that women with breast cancer have the third highest rate of depression among cancer diagnostic groups, and that major depression is an under-recognized and under-treated problem.
I turned to Dr. M. Beatriz Currier, director of the Courtelis Center for Psychosocial Oncology at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, for help. At her office, I was given a questionnaire that listed problems — decreased energy, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite — that can be both symptoms of depression and side effects of cancer treatment.
Moments after sitting down in front of Currier, I was in tears. She was kind and empathetic; her mother died of breast cancer, and her sister had the disease.
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“We utilize a combination of supportive psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral techniques and antidepressant medications,” she said.
“While a patient is undergoing treatment, it is important that they also have a reliable support system. Are you keeping in touch with friends?”
I told her that I used social media to connect with family and friends.
To cope with overwhelming emotions, I had sometimes shared my fears on Facebook with my flourishing garden of 4,000 friends.
Facebook allowed me the wonder of developing close emotional connections with people who lived as far away as Iran, Germany and France. To my surprise, about a dozen of them said they were cancer survivors or were dealing with the disease.
Alligator Alumni Association executive director Ed Barber, who has mentored many University of Florida journalism students in Gainesville, became my mentor in a different field.
“I don’t know you personally, but … I feel you are truly a beautiful person who is full of life, love and grace,” Barber wrote in a message on Facebook. “I survived a serious cancer some six years ago.”
Michael Maryanoff, who used to work at the Vagabond, a late-night lounge I once frequented in downtown Miami, said I could call him any time.
“If you need someone to talk to, I’m here. We may have different diagnoses, but I understand what it’s like to be young with cancer,” Maryanoff wrote.
Investigators have found that younger breast cancer patients experience more depression during treatment than older patients.
A month after my bilateral mastectomy, I was waking up with sharp, pulsating pain beneath the breast implants. I was feeling alone. I was crying every morning. I didn’t want to answer my phone, and I didn’t want to bother people with my cancer updates on Facebook.
Currier had warned me that losing my breasts was going to be devastating. And as much as I wished I could be a pink-caped super hero and do this on my own, I realized I needed help.
Antidepressants were the first step. In the morning I’m taking Wellbutrin, which increases the amount of norepinephrine and dopamine, two brain chemicals that affect mood. At night I’m taking Lexapro, which works on another neurotransmitter, serotonin.
The medication will do its part, and I will have to do mine. Going out for walks, making an effort to eat even when I don’t feel like it, and staying connected to others with the help of social media will improve my outlook. I’m also set to begin behavioral therapy soon.
"You don’t have to do this alone,"’ Currier said. "We are here for you."