Dealing with trauma, anxiety and depression as a two-time leukemia survivor, Marell Tomeh shares her story
When I was 19, I was starting to make decisions about where my life would take me. I was planning a trip with friends, working hard at university and thinking long-term about my aspirations. This came to a sudden halt the moment I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
I cancelled my trip, but didn’t want to burden my friends with my bad news. I had always been the one to support other people, rarely asking for help myself. To protect my vulnerability and preserve some sense of normalcy, I kept my diagnosis private, and in retrospect, this is probably the worst thing I could have done.
I spent much of the next two years of my treatment worrying about who knew what, and about people seeing me without hair and potentially judging my significant weight gain, not knowing the steroids I was taking contributed to this. The medication caused my mood to fluctuate, making my mental health harder to manage. I had trouble managing my expectations of myself, comparing myself to my peers and feeling a sense of urgency to “catch up.”
I fell into a deep depression and it took some time to acknowledge it and admit that I was struggling. I became more and more anxious in public and social settings. I developed a stutter and felt as though I had lost my sense of humour and ability to engage in conversation. Socializing became awkward and uncomfortable, and schoolwork became frustrating.
A few years after my treatment ended, I relapsed. This time, I needed a bone marrow donor and had no choice but to open up about my cancer. This made a huge difference in my mental health and my healing. I stopped seeing vulnerability as a weakness and, as a result, quit being so afraid.
A cancer diagnosis interrupts life. As a young adult with cancer I feel like my life milestones have been pushed back and I am falling further behind all of my peers. Before my diagnosis, I took pride in knowing I worked well under pressure and could multitask with ease. I thought getting back to school would help me get back to ”normal,” but I am still struggling with “chemo brain’” and dealing with the repercussions—mental and physical—that come with cancer, and find it all too stressful and overwhelming.
After going through something as traumatic as cancer, my stress response has become more sensitive. So, I have decided to take some time away from school and work to care for myself. I am re-examining my priorities and figuring out how to build a meaningful life that can also support my real-world concerns, like finding health coverage for my ongoing medical expenses.
My goal is to use my cancer experience to help other people. I want to create a safe space for other patients and survivors to express themselves and support their healing. Nothing good comes from leaving your wounds unattended but we can find strength in acknowledging and embracing them.
Marell Tomeh is a two-time leukemia survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient. As a young adult cancer survivor, Marell shares her story and hopes to shed light on the obstacles associated with trauma, anxiety and depression.
Marell shared her story first-hand on May 14 at 2021 POGO AfterCare Education Day, where she spoke about The Lived Experience: Navigating School and Work after Cancer.