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Transforming the Chaos of Cancer to Post-Traumatic Growth

Learn how the pain through the trauma of cancer can transform in positive ways.
PUBLISHED March 05, 2019
Jeannine Walston is an accomplished leader, respected expert and vibrant brain tumor survivor since 1998 with passion as a cancer coach, consultant and speaker. Her extensive work includes for the U.S. Congress, cancer non-profits, government agencies with NCI, FDA, and NCCAM, hospitals, clinics, doctors, providers, other businesses, cancer patients, caregivers and the public. She has deep knowledge and insights about integrative cancer care for the whole person. Learn more at

During January in Los Angeles this year, I was in a car accident in the rain. Shaking inside and crying, my physical and psychological crisis shattered me. As I processed the chaos, aspects emerged about trauma around my brain tumor journey.

I was only 24 years old when diagnosed with a brain tumor. I remember the disconnect as I tried to process my new reality while enduring the possibilities about dying. I had no idea how to deal with this lack of control. Before, during and after my first awake brain surgery in 1998, as well as over the last 20-plus years with more treatments and other factors, I’ve experienced more trauma.

Trauma can be defined in many ways, and I witnessed myself enduring post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). In the process, I’ve felt various types of physical, mental and emotional challenges with trauma, including many questions about my identity and safety.

I remember attending a cancer event years ago. I sat next to a woman whom I did not know named Tzipi Weiss, DSW, LCSW. She began a conversation with me and mentioned Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG), which is a term for the positive life changes that may come from trauma.

I’m grateful for the conversation that inspired me. Throughout my quest to transform and thrive, I’ve learned how PTG is a way to incorporate a bigger picture. Educated shifts with my mind, body and spirit have been a process over time. With progress, learning that challenges can become opportunities and adversity to actions, I was able to liberate myself and find more confidence with resilience.

As PTG continued in my mindset of curiosity, I conducted research. Some PTG studies of cancer patients and even caregivers showed an appreciation of life, personal strength, spiritual change and improved sense of relating to others. Those changes and experiences vary as many components occur with the pain and gain of cancer.

The levels of trauma transformed into PTG can impact not just individuals. Sandra L. Bloom, M.D., in Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis, discusses changes in society. She wrote, “Throughout history humans striving to transform adversity into strength consistently possess a sense of moral commitment, a sense that personal and group trauma must be converted into a community asset, not just a personal asset or catastrophe. From such traumatic origins springs the co-construction or reconstruction of civilization.”

I know of people who find meaning and impact society from the cancer experience. Some patients, survivors and their loved ones have created non-profits focused on education, advocacy, research and more. Other have cultivated fundraising events, especially for research. I’m aware of various people changing their jobs and taking new directions to find their calling in life. And some individuals were working so hard and decided to take a break or quit. Other people wanted to travel, spend more times with family or share their cancer story.

Inspiration and motivation are helpful sources to impact individuals and societies. May we all evolve from some aspects of suffering and melt to a force larger than oneself. Now is the time.

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