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"Surviving Cancer: A Blessing and a Beastly Journey"

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There are so many aspects of survivorship that I found myself unprepared for. One deeply personal aspect that caught me completely off guard goes back to my childhood.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, Doris Cardwell

I grew up in an abusive environment. It started very young, as early as five or six. Trauma is a beast that refuses to be left un dealt with. You can tuck it away for a while but it will rear its ugly head, often when you least expect it. When I began my journey as a cancer survivor, I had to learn to handle trauma-related things as they came up. The first time it reared its ugly head was not long after I realized I had inflammatory breast cancer. I was standing on my front porch and a thought came into my mind tied to some headlines I had read a few years before. I had read that there might be a connection between abortion and breast cancer. I had also read that it was not scientifically proven but that headline stayed somewhere in my mind. Abortion was a choice that I had made in my earlier years, one that had seemed like my only option at the time. As soon as that thought came into my mind, another one came that reminded me the first was untrue. A thought that told me cancer can happen to anyone regardless of what they have or have not done. I also knew the science I had seen didn't support the theoretical connection. This thought battle was not so hard to fight.

Fast forward to several months later and even now seventeen years later, here is a harder one for me to battle. I can't count the number of times this has come up. I hesitate to even share this because it is so sensitive. So many people have told me that child abuse can cause cancer later in life. Emphatically, they believe that I had cancer because of childhood trauma. Often, this is because they read a book or an article that made that statement. I have to believe they stopped their research right there with that one article or book chapter. I say that because I know if they were trauma-informed, they wouldn't say that to me. They would keep that thought to themselves. They would know how hard those words would be for me to hear.

Others have asked me if I thought my diagnosis was a result of my childhood trauma. I do appreciate the second approach more than the first, but they both are hard. 

The CDC does in fact state that adverse childhood experiences can increase the risk for diseases. I am not in denial about the research they have completed. I am saying that the emotions and feelings tied to that might not be a good topic for casual conversation. I know most people mean well, some not as much, but at the end of the day, cancer is hard enough. Having these conversations in the grocery store, over coffee, or at work is not helpful nor easy. I handle it way better now than I used to, for the most part. But if you have dealt with deep trauma you know sometimes you get blindsided. After having been on the receiving end of these comments and questions, I see things through my own eyes. And I believe they would be better left unsaid.

The abuse I endured was the result of choices made by other people. None of which I had any control over, I was a child. Those choices made by those people haunted me for many years. They set into motion chains of events that affect my life still, even today. Not as much now as they did before. But there are still thought patterns and responses that can linger. The damage that I sustained is irreversible but something I can overcome.

Cancer can happen to anyone, with very different outcomes for each person. I have been around it long enough to know there are things that can increase risk. I also know some of those risks are beyond our control. Dealing with childhood trauma and dealing with cancer is all very individual. It is my hope that by sharing my thoughts and experiences, maybe someone else will be spared. For those who have said these things to me, I know you were unaware and you were poking at Pandora's box. Please don't let my words make you feel guilty, let them cultivate knowledge. And let them help us all, myself included, to learn to be more sensitive. Life is complicated and we can’t expect to be able to put it all in a neat little box that answers the why of everything.

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