Depressing cancer v. cancerous depression

I’m always amazed when someone confesses to having chronic depression online. On your popular blogs, the comments threads fill up with people sharing their own stories and struggles with depressive or bipolar disorders. I’m sure it’s a confirmation bias — those who don’t suffer with depression tend to keep quiet because this is a world with which they have no insight.

That’s certainly true in my case. I read those comments because I want to understand what they’re going through. Often the depth of their struggles is only matched by the breadth of their strength. Not often enough, though. If you ever need a reason to go hug your throw pillows and rock quietly back and forth, read some stories of the people who couldn’t find what they needed.

Save the Ta-tas!

If only breast cancer had a good marketing hook…

Recently, one of my favorite bloggers compared our treatment of cancer sufferers to depression sufferers. I’d never thought about it before, but I think Jenny has a point. I’ve been on bike tours and walks for cancer. There’s an underwear run in Canada to raise money for “below the waist” cancers — colorectal, testicular, ovarian, prostate and cervical. Testicular cancer even has its own champion bicyclist who might have been juicing. There’s bound to be a memorial pancreatic cancer iPhone app soon.

Cancer also has favored nation status on House. That’s more than we can say for lupus.

But looking for the equivalent support and fundraising systems for behavioral or mood disorders is a study in frustration. I can find Mental Health America and some suicide hotlines, but I don’t see any fun runs where everyone’s in thongs or something. It’s surprising, because the list of current celebrities who’ve had to cope with depression includes some pretty big names:

  • Angelina Jolie
  • Catherine Zeta-Jones
  • John Hamm
  • Anne Hathaway
  • Hugh Laurie (he doesn’t have lupus either)
  • J. K. Rowling
  • Buzz Aldrin

Pretty A-listy. But with the except of Catherine Zeta-Jones, they all talk about depression in the past tense. Buzz Aldrin, for example, struggled with his new fame after the Apollo 11 mission and pretty much crawled into a bottle for the first half of the 70s. While I am glad one of my heroes fought off his demons, that doesn’t sound like what Jenny Lawson or Allie Brosch or many of the commenters on their blogs are describing.

Why is that? Why does cancer, or Parkinson’s, or multiple sclerosis get the celebrity PSAs and the charities and events and Melissa Etheridge songs?

The answer is obvious, I think. Cancer can strike anyone of any age or social class with no warning. The treatment for it can be long and harrowing. Even if you pull through an occurrence, you are more likely than others to have it again. Every time you wake up with something different about you, you are panicked that your reprieve is done and the ride is starting over. It’s not a disease you really get cured of — you just learn to ignore the fear and hope each change isn’t lighting the fuse on another internal bomb.

But depression is different. Depression is… ummm… well… see… shit.

Glibness aside, the difference is one shows up on an MRI and the other hides in your brain. Someone with a tumor is sick and needs our help; someone with a mental disorder is crazy and needs to be in a funny jacket with the sleeves tied around back. If you see someone with a weird lump, you get them to the hospital (usually). If you see someone sitting in the dark and staring into space, you try to cheer them up or tell them to snap out of it. Would you tell a cancer victim to quit behaving like a baby and stop having a malignant growth on their colon?

(If Lorraine Day is reading this blog, I withdraw the question. Sorry Lorraine, I’m just not convinced your “eating beets and oppressing Jews” plan is the cure for anything. Also, get away from my blog you delusional butt-nugget.)

I don’t know what it’s going to take to start viewing depression as a serious disease, and people with depression as victims. I don’t think it helps when our glitterati doesn’t bring it up until they can talk about it as being “long ago.” We’re too afraid of people with some funky wiring in their heads because we think they’ll do something like drown their children or dress as Howdy Doody and drive the wrong way on the interstate or buy Snooki’s book.

I think there’s a branding problem, too. The word “depression” can be applied to severe disorder that you wrestle with every day, or it might be feeling temporarily a little glum all afternoon because it’s the last season for Chuck.

Maria has summed up the posts I’ve referenced here and several more. She’s set up a place where people can at least share their experiences and their pain, and they can do it anonymously so they can step back out into the world with their masks on. Reading the posts on there is wrenching if you have even a shred of empathy in you. If you can make it through those, you won’t be thinking about Chuck for awhile.

Or maybe I’m just a little extra sensitive today. My ultrasound last week found an anomaly, and I’m worried I might get to go through this cancer shit again.

At least an ultrasound can give me proof there’s something unusual going on. Even in the worst case, we’ll see exactly what’s happening and I’ll have people running and walking and biking for me too. That is, until the American Cancer Society discovers I’m an atheist.

In the meantime, people just as sick as any cancer patient sit alone running razor blades along their arms to stave off the numbness for a few minutes. Maybe someone you know. It might be worth finding out. It might be worth finding help.

OMG this is Chuck’s final season!

5 Comments on “Depressing cancer v. cancerous depression

  1. Thank you so much for this post!
    I am in my 4th decade of coping with chronic clinical depression. So far, I haven’t found many therapeutic resources that are friendly to atheists. A long string of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and groups have all stressed the need to have some kind of “faith.” I have found that friends who are humanists tend to be supportive and encouraging when I talk about my depression. I know they are not going to preach their faith.
    I do think that postings like yours and the resource Maria has created help to relieve the stigma. Sorry to hear about the ultrasound results. Damn.
    I have found a new miracle bracelet that combines the Wisdom of the Ancients with Space Age Quantum Science that cures cancer and depression. I’ll let you know how it goes.
    Thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks for a terrific post. I’ve had BOTH, and honestly, I was rather apologetic about feeling so bad when I had depression. It wasn’t cancer…it wasn’t going to require surgery, and tests and fear of what was going to happen …and yet….honestly…the cancer has a “step one” “step two” “step three” feeling about it. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but each step of the way there were professionals telling me what to do next. This was pre internet days, so googling wasn’t an option. With the depression, there seemed no clear road map. You weren’t supposed to “tell people”. You were supposed to “fake it until you make it”. Guilt is overwhelming. I didn’t feel guilty when I got cancer. Yet I felt horrible guilt about my depression. I should be able to just snap out of it. Hey, I was the woman that handled ovarain cancer! I’m tough! Nope not tough enough, depression beat me up, spit me out, and stomped on me. It wasn’t until a really good therapist said to me, “you know, the death rate for depression is the same as for cancer”. I was “what?” Now she meant cancer overall…but people die from depression. And young people die at a terrific rate. It’s serious. Especially in young people (I was still fairly young at the time). It seemed horrible to equate depression with cancer, but both kill. And the mom that has lost a child to depression doesn’t get the support of the mom that has lost a child to cancer. So for the families helping, there are no neighbors baking casseroles, or offers to drive people to treatment.

    Both are horrible, and my prayer is that I never have to face either again. Both are very different. (I have a friend with very difficult diabetes and she says people don’t get she can die from it. Also someone with AIDS told me recently that “people seem to think you just take a few pills everyday and it’s fine, it isn’t.” So depression isn’t the only serious illness with image problems). But if someone you know has depression, offer a ride to the therapist or doctor. Make them a casserole. Call them and say “let’s go take a walk”. Let them know that when they come out the other side, you won’t think any less of them, and that you understand this is an illness. The same stuff you would do if they had cancer, or diabetes, or AIDS.

  3. Wow. This post is so timely and so true. I can’t thank you enough. YOU GET IT.

  4. Thanks a lot for this post. Forget comparing cancer and depression. I am fighting the misinformation epidemic.
    Clinical Depression is many times meant as getting sad because India lost a cricket match against Pakistan.

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