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The Mental Health Impact of a Childhood Cancer Diagnosis: Savannah’s Story

Published on Sep. 22, 2021

On September 15, 2008, I was at Valley Children’s being hooked up to the IV's one last time – at just 17 years old, I had survived cancer treatment. The journey was over, time to move on and “go back to life.” Little did I know that surviving cancer was only half the battle. In the months and years that followed, I was faced with a new challenge: my mental health.

My name is Savannah and while I am a childhood cancer survivor, it is the mental health struggles stemming from my diagnosis that I wanted to talk about today. 

It was more than one year after completing treatment that I hit a point where I could no longer ignore that I was struggling. It was my freshman year in college when I would wake up in the middle of the night from vividly realistic “dreams” – or flashbacks – of being in the hospital receiving treatment. Many nights I would end up laying on the bathroom floor in a cold sweat, feeling utterly sick, mimicking the aftermath of chemo treatments. During the day I would feel so weak that I could not even stand on my own at times, I had pain throughout my entire neck and spine, not to mention the horrible headaches. What was happening? In my mind, this could only be one thing: the cancer was back.

I later learned that this was not the case, blood work came back normal, and scans were clear. There was no cancer. The nurse practitioner looked me in the eye and with compassion told me that this was not physical. What I was suffering was the mental effects of surviving a childhood trauma.

Savannah's Childhood Cancer Survivorship Story photos

With the help of professionals, I have learned how to navigate these side effects and the impact trauma can have on both the body and the mind. I can recognize when my body gives me cues, like when I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed. Listening to these cues has been validating and created a foundation for my healing.

Perhaps most cathartic has been using my personal struggle to become a better mental health practitioner. Following treatment, I went on to get a college education, eventually earning my master’s degree in social work. For the last four years I served high school students as a school social worker, providing mental health supports on campus. As a mental health practitioner and as a patient, there are three things I want to share:

  1. Therapy works and is not for the weak! Finding a therapist who you trust and connect with can be truly lifechanging.
  2. There is no shame in taking or needing mental health medications. There is still so much stigma around this. If you were diabetic, would you withhold the insulin needed to maintain your wellness? No. So why would we deny ourselves of medications, like anti-depressants, if that’s what we need to be and stay well?
  3. You matter. There is a reason you are here now and have survived all you have. Even though you may not be able to see it, it’s there. Have faith in your purpose, and if you need help discovering what that is, revisit #1 and #2.

My mental health struggle is not something that can be cured. It’s an ongoing process. At times, it is strong and healthy, and other times it is weaker and needs support. It was, is, and will always be something I must be mindful about. And the kicker? It’s not just me. Just like we all have bodies, we all have mental health.

Throughout all this I’ve come to know that I’m not alone. By being connected to the Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program at Valley Children’s Hospital, I have learned that sharing my story is powerful, for my own healing and that of others. I encourage everyone to do the same. Your story matters and should be told if and when you are ready.


Learn More and Get Involved: Valley Children’s 6th Annual Fall Childhood Cancer Survivorship Conference

Join us on Oct. 16 at 1 p.m. for the 6th Annual Fall Childhood Cancer Survivorship Conference, featuring keynote speaker Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist who specializes in understanding the mind-body connection. She is the best-selling author of The Willpower Instinct and The Upside of Stress. Her latest book, The Joy of Movement, explores why physical exercise is a powerful antidote to the modern epidemics of depression, anxiety and loneliness. Dr. McGonigal will also be joined by Valley Children's Childhood Cancer Survivor, Savannah Gomes, ASW, PPC.