Tamron Little was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma at just 21 years old. Despite balancing new motherhood, an arduous cancer treatment schedule and a rollercoaster ride of emotions, it would take almost a decade post-treatment for Little to find the mental health resources she needed when first diagnosed. In this Slice of Life essay, Little reminds us to listen not only to our bodies, but also to our minds.
At times, we don’t give our minds much credit. The mind is a powerful thing! Fifteen years ago, as a young new mom, my mind experienced something traumatic, and I didn’t even become fully aware of it until years down the road.
About five months after I had given birth to my first child, I was told I had peritoneal Mesothelioma and given 18 months to live. Let’s stop here. This moment signifies when the trauma began. I’m far from an expert, but my mind hasn’t been the same since that day.
After you are given a cancer diagnosis, the focus is on treatment plans for the specific area the cancer is affecting. In my case, it was the lining of my stomach. But I was oblivious to the fact that my mind was being impacted as well. My body was the focus, and everything else was off the radar. During an interview a couple of months ago, I was asked why I didn’t seek help from a mental health professional. My answer: “It wasn’t offered.” Had it been an option for me, I would have taken them up on it, trust me.
At the time, I coped with the cancer diagnosis the best way I knew how. In the beginning, I was in total shock. Shocked to the point that I couldn’t talk about it. I shifted all of my focus on my five-month-old baby. Being overwhelmed with shock is normal. Who prepares themselves to hear the news that they have cancer?
After the shock, I went into a “Why me?” mindset. I questioned God, Why do I have cancer? What did I do so wrong to get something so bad? Why, Lord? Why? This sent me into a downward spiral where I questioned everything. I looked back over things I did in the past, trying to make sense of why I had to be the one with this cancer I had never heard of. Even though I was going through this in my mind, I told no one. I couldn’t, because I was looked at as the strong one in the family — the fixer who had her stuff together. But all the while, a battle was going on in my mind. And that’s when I sunk into denial.
When I finally found a specialist who introduced me to a treatment plan involving surgery, my hope was renewed! I went through an intense 10-hour surgery that included heated chemotherapy. Some parts of my treatment and healing process I don’t remember. I’m sure you’re thinking, huh? Why don’t you remember everything? It’s because I wasn’t in the moment. Once I found out this surgery was going to get rid of the cancer, my mind had moved to the future. Just picture me, running ahead of myself, looking back and telling the present me to catch up, because my mind was already in the future. During recovery, mental health resources still weren’t offered. I didn’t even know I needed help in this area. I thought that once I got rid of the cancer, that I would be OK. Boy, was I wrong. If you’re not present in the moment, no matter what’s going on in your life, you’re not giving yourself time to process your feelings. This is exactly what happened with me. I didn’t allow myself to sit in my feelings, or digest all that was going on.
A decade after my diagnosis and treatment, I knew I needed to see a mental health professional. No, I didn’t have an “Aha” moment and wake up one day realizing I needed a therapist. It all started with horrible anxiety and panic attacks occurring out of nowhere, especially while I was driving. After numerous trips to the emergency room, appointments with a cardiologist and pulmonologist, a sleep study, a heart monitor and a consult with a neurologist, I was told my birth control pills were causing the panic attacks, and was prescribed a very low dose of anxiety medicine. Birth control, you say? I believed that lie and told everyone who asked that birth control was at fault for my declining mental health. But the anxiety attacks were still happening, even in my sleep, which made me scared to go to sleep. Not one time did any of the specialists ask me how I was really feeling or even consider referring me to mental health counseling.
Imagine going to sleep at night, but when you wake up the next morning, you’re tired and feel like you were fighting all night. That was a usual night for me. Or while driving, listening to your favorite song, and bam! It feels like you can’t breathe, you start sweating, your heart is pounding and you have to pull over to the side of the road. That was me, pretty much every time I drove. I was suffering, but I didn’t know what I was suffering from. It was a mind thing.
My regular doctor was the one who took the time to talk to me and listen and evaluate my symptoms. She opened up another door of hope for me when she explained that I was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. I would have never thought in a million years that’s what was going on. In some cases, people know they need mental health help but are hesitant to seek it. But in my case, I didn’t know I needed it until I got it.
Your mind is a terrible thing to waste, and it’s imperative to know that your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Going through a cancer battle doesn’t just place a toll on your body. So ask yourself today, what about my mind?
Read more about Little’s cancer journey here.