Mental Health and Cancer
- TikTok star Tia Stokes, the “cancer dancer,” is proudly in remission for leukemia, and took to Instagram to open up about her mental health struggles.
- She says that even though she always looks happy, she’s not happy all the time. She’s constantly trying to choose happy.
- One of our experts says a cancer diagnosis can come with grief. He recommends talk therapy to help people cope with the change that a cancer diagnosis brings to a person’s life.
Stokes, also known as the “cancer dancer,” caught the attention of many when the hip-hop teacher who once danced back-up for Beyonce kept posting uplifting dance videos while undergoing treatment. Her cancer journey had an eerie start when, at 16, she was told she might develop leukemia within the next 15 years or so. Unfortunately, the prediction came true and the then-34-year-old mother was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2020.Read More
Stokes considered it to be “day 534” of fighting leukemia as of Oct. 10, 2021, but she is proudly in remission. In her most recent Instagram post, she posted a photo of herself and opened up about how she’s not always happy, but she tries to be.
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“I strive to Choose happy every day,” she wrote in her caption. “I’m not perfect at it…but I’m trying… It’s hard for all of us.”
And mental health has always been something she’s working on. She talked about how one of her pregnancies caused her prenatal depression, another pregnancy left her with postpartum depression and cancer “brought some unexpected turns.”
“The chemo, the effects, the isolation in the hospital the down ward spirals, the loneliness, the after….it goes on,” she wrote. “Truth be told mentally I’m still trying to grasp life. IM STRIVING ✨ we all are.”
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Overall, Stokes shares her story because she wants to remind people that they are “worth fighting for.”
“LIFE IS GOOD….even on bad days,” she wrote. “If I can help one, uplift one, encourage [one] then that’s ENOUGH💫”
Understanding Acute Myeloid Leukemia
Tia Stokes’ type of leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia (AML), is a blood cancer that affects the spongy tissue inside of your bones called bone marrow. It’s a rare cancer, but it is the most common type of leukemia in adults.
Dr. Mikkael Sekeres, chief of the Division of Hematology at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, explains that bone marrow is essentially the factory that makes all of the cells in the blood stream. This includes the red blood cells that bring oxygen to our tissues, white blood cells that make up the immune system and the platelets which help stop bleeding.
When a person has AML, “that factory gets broken” because the bone marrow fills with cancer cells. Ultimately, this hinders the creation and function of the important blood cells.
“So there’s a bit of a paradox,” Dr. Sekeres previously told SurvivorNet. “The bone marrow has too many cells, yet the bloodstream has too few cells as the normal bone marrow cells die off.”
Symptoms of AML can include shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance, unexplained bruising or infections. But sometimes people with AML have no symptoms at all.
“Most of the time, this comes as an unwelcome surprise diagnosis,” Dr. Gail Roboz, a medical oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, previously told SurvivorNet. “Often, patients have no idea that leukemia is even anywhere on the radar.”
Mental Health after a Cancer Diagnosis
Dealing with a mental health struggle looks different for everyone, especially when it comes to a cancer diagnosis. But feeling sad or anxious about the changes coming your way after hearing the “c” word for the first time is very normal and understandable.
“Grief comes in waves,” Dr. Scott Irwin, a psychiatrist and director of supportive care services at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “They’re grieving the change in their life. The future they had imagined is now different.”
Dr. Irwin stressed how helpful talk therapy could be when dealing with the mixed emotions. It’s important to reach out to your doctor, a therapist or support groups in your community if you feel like you’re struggling – something Tia Stokes encourages her followers to do as well.
“But no matter what you have gone through mental health is real…i get it,” she wrote. “I plead with you to REACH OUT…try counseling…medication is nothing to be ashamed about….it’s ok to feel those feelings YOU ARE NOT CRAZY.”
Ni Guttenfelder can attest to the benefits of therapy. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in October 2017 and quickly decided she needed a therapist to help process her feelings. Her suggestion is to seek a counselor you’re comfortable with – one you trust and can open up to about your cancer diagnosis.
“Initially I went to a session where I just cried and the counselor basically told me what I was feeling was normal and didn’t offer me any type of feedback. But I knew that I needed something more than that. Not just a crying session and a pat on my shoulder,” she told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “What I have found is that it’s critical to find the right counselor, not just any counselor.”
Once she found a counselor she truly trusted, Guttenfelder began to see some clarity.
“One of the things that my counselor has taught me from the very beginning that has helped me is the concept of acceptance,” she says. “Acceptance is a process. It’s like downloading a computer file in increments. Visualizing it in that way has really helped me.”
Her therapist also taught her how to manage the people in her life. She decided to look into her relationship with her father, for example, because he was resistant to the idea of her receiving chemotherapy.
“It makes it more of an uphill battle and a challenge because we’ll sometimes get into arguments about it,” she says. “My counselor would say, for my own benefit and health that it’s best to limit the time with others who may not be lifting me up during my treatment.”
She also had some helpful advice for other women dealing with ovarian cancer: “You are stronger and more resilient than you could ever imagine.”
“I think there’s a misconception that we beat cancer when we finish treatment,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the case for everyone. I want you to know that you beat cancer by how you live your life.”