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Overcoming mental illness and cancer

“As much as it was a struggle having cancer, it was a blessing in disguise.”

As hard as it was for Anna Gates, having cancer was the struggle that she needed to find happiness.

With her teenage years riddled with mental illness, it was her cancer diagnosis at age 19 that gave her the pespective to see her life in a completely different light.

From a young age, Anna dealt with her mental illness alone.

“The first time I started to feel the weight of a mental illness was when I was 12 years old,” she tells upstart.

“At the time, there were a lot of difficulties influencing my life which I struggled to cope with properly.”

She refused to seek any type of help and spiralled out of control, struggling with body image, her self-worth and an immense hatred of herself.

“This continued untreated for many years, in which my mental health deteriorated,” Anna says.

Although her support network was solid, she felt that she couldn’t tell her family and friends for fear of hurting them.

“I didn’t feel like I could tell anybody what was happening. I didn’t want to be a burden to my family and friends.”

Anna’s lowest point came in 2013, when she broke down and spent a week in the psychiatric inpatient unit of Albury Base Hospital.

“I’d had enough and after a serious overdose, I ended up in hospital with my stomach pumped and a suicide watchman at my door.”

Not long after Anna had begun getting herself some help and her life was getting back on track she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – a cancer that attacks the lymphatic system – and quickly began treatment in Melbourne.

In Anna’s case, doctors found abnormal cells in the form of tumours in her lymph nodes.

“It was extremely hard to deal with both illnesses.”

Like many cancer patients, Anna was lonely and insecure.

“I was isolated because I couldn’t get out of bed and I lost a lot of weight and all of my hair which caused me to become self-conscious,” she says.

“I always felt like people stared when I went out in public so I tended to avoid it.”

Typically outgoing, Anna was unable to keep up with her friend’s social lives and struggled to visit her parents.

“I was unable to attend social events or even visit my parents because I was so tired and lethargic all the time.”

For Anna, when her physical health was at its lowest so was her mental health. This not only made treatment hard, but also everyday life.

“The mental strain of chemotherapy is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone ever. It’s very hard to watch your body deteriorate because of a drug that’s meant to help you,” she says.

“I was always anxious that I was going to die, or that the cancer wasn’t going to go away, and that’s a fear I still have today.”

Since been given the news of remission at the end of 2014, she has grown back her hair and just recently shaved it off again as part of the World’s Greatest Shave.

It was overcoming cancer that helped Anna deal with her mental illness.

“As a result of overcoming cancer, I saw life in a very different light. It was like I woke up one day and realised that life is far too short to be sad and I just moved on,” Anna says.

“I felt happiness which is a feeling I couldn’t remember ever feeling and I began living the life I deserved to live.”

She still has bad days, but understands that everyone does and has learnt to recognise the warning signs and is able to implement the right strategies to overcome those moments.

“I like to look at positive quotes and reflect on the journey I’ve had so far. I surround myself with positive people and lose myself in music,” she says.

“As much as it was a struggle having cancer, it was a blessing in disguise.”


Vivienne DuckThumb

Vivienne Duck is a third year Bachelor of Journalism (sport) student and the culture and lifestyle editor with upstart. You can follow her on twitter @VivienneDuck  

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