A Story of Cancer Survival and Mental Wellness

Oct 31, 2020

Jessica C. Pirro, LMSW, chief executive officer of Crisis Services and co-chair of the Anti-Stigma Coalition, shares her story of cancer survival and mental wellness.

We all have different response levels to stress. How we respond also is biological, including our own trauma histories as individuals. Some responses are short lived, some are longer, and some become part of our day to day. We have to learn the best coping skills to manage impacts on our mental health.

Overall, I have had a wonderful life. I am extremely lucky to have support of a loving family, an amazing job that gives me purpose and – 99% of the time – a positive outlook on life. Although I have had my life’s challenges including divorce, minor medical issues, a past abusive relationship, I came through with determination, support and love from those around me.

When I look at my mental health, I always felt strong except with what I referred to as situational anxiety, resulting from public speaking. I remember the first presentation in school I had to do as a kid vividly to this day. Feelings I couldn’t control or had experienced until that moment.
My voice quivering to the point that I was on the verge of tears. My heart pounding and now realized it was anxiety that took over.

This paralyzing feeling was something I learned to expect and knew I needed to work on. Although presenting and public speaking is part of my day to day work, that anxiety is always under the surface. I have learned techniques to keep it in check to help me succeed.

But, then something changed that brought this situational anxiety to generalized anxiety in my life.

The day I was diagnosed with cancer. Who would have thought the words “I have cancer” would come from my lips. My family health history was impacted by heart disease. It was known and to be expected. I worked to limit my health risks so my genetics didn’t take over. There was no family history of cancer. I never thought it would impact me.

Then I went for my annual mammogram that was routine for many years. This year was different.

The first mammogram, a second mammogram, an ultrasound, to “we found something,” to biopsy within hours was a whirlwind. My husband quickly rushed to the appointment to meet me and we stood in the lobby stunned.

This was a Thursday and the results would take several days. So, we sat. I sat with all the unknowns that compound into anxiety I have never felt before. A space that fluctuated from despair to anger to determination to fight. The mixed level of feelings that this diagnosis brings instantly becomes a part of you and doesn’t leave.

As I went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, I saw anxiety becoming a part of who I was now going to be. I had to learn to allow myself the ability to accept it, know it, tackle it or let it take over in the moment as needed for my well-being. I was managing this daily during my yearlong treatment.

Some days are better than others. The rush of heat, the redness on my neck, difficulty breathing or being overtaken with emotion in a moment’s notice became my norm.

People see you surviving and fighting this disease. They are excited when your treatment is done. You get comments from others such as “Aren’t you so excited to be done?” or “you beat it.”

Dealing with all I have and will deal with, my response was always “Yes, I am done with treatment, but my healing is just beginning.”

And that healing continues. The difference with this, unlike my fears with public speaking, it is now innate in my being.

As a 3-year survivor, I view and manage this differently with each passing year. I see this as my body telling when it needs care. When my mind needs to rest and a reminder that healing is a process. I have moved from trying to stop the feelings to just holding on to them differently. This is a part of me now.

I always have concern of reoccurrence present in my mind. But I celebrate the days I don’t think about it or the moments I forget I had cancer. That is my body giving me moments of reprieve from the underlining anxiety that will always be.

I truly honor anyone managing anxiety every day. Acceptance to this happening helps me breathe easier and helps me move forward, some days better than others.

Jessica C. Pirro, LMSW, chief executive officer of Crisis Services and co-chair of the Anti-Stigma Coalition

Jessica C. Pirro, LMSW,
CEO of Crisis Services & Co-chair of the Anti-Stigma Coalition

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