A Superhero Movie Triggered My Cancer-Related PTSD

Cancer is talked about more openly nowadays, and while watching a movie with my daughter, a scene portraying a character in hospice care gave me flashbacks to our cancer experience.

Whether in treatment, a survivor or a caregiver, the experience of dealing with cancer becomes ingrained in our psyche. We experience the first diagnosis. Then comes the discussion of treatment options, their risks and side effects and of concern for possible outcomes. Life becomes a series of surgeries and treatments followed with healing periods.

These often weaken and limit our strength, leaving us with a lot of inactivity and solitude. Many treatments mean multiple visits taking multiple hours as the drugs received are slowly fed in through an IV. This period can settle in the subconscious, waiting to be triggered by the right image or phrase.

Through the 1950s, 60s and 70s cancer was not spoken about in mixed company. Often cancer was equated with a death sentence and referred to with code phrases such as “the C word.”

You did not see cancer displayed in popular media. Portrayals in movies or books were uncommon, if they existed at all, and usually carried a somber attitude. News stories were mostly just headlines, with a few sentences about the diagnosis or death of a notable person. This is understandable since the medical world's knowledge of cancer and successful treatments at that time were still limited. Survival was often considered a miracle.

Beginning in the 1980s breast cancer was the first with a major public campaign. Self-exams were recommended with advertising and instructions on how had become mainstream. The idea of a baseline mammogram was added to the standard of care. Improvements on all fronts from early detection to treatment were improving outcomes.

Over the decades, this same process has been adapted to all other cancers. It was now not just safe, but common, to talk about cancer out in the open. Now cancer is often talked about in movies and TV shows, and is often an integral part of the story.

It is 2014, my daughter and I are sitting in the movie theater waiting for the new Marvel movie, “Guardians of the Galaxy” to begin. It opens with a 10-year-old boy in a hospital, standing beside a hospice bed, his uncle beside him as his mother is experiencing the last few moments of life.

I have a flashback to six years prior, and it is me standing with my 12-year-old daughter beside a hospice bed as her mother is experiencing the last few moments of her life. I can only imagine what my daughter is feeling.

Fortunately, the theater is dark, and everyone is glued to the screen. Thankfully during the six years before this, both my daughter and I have actively been counseled on our grief and that flashback did not last much longer than the movie scene and we were able to enjoy the rest of the film.

Then recently a movie scene hit me. Again, a Marvel movie, it has the character Jane Foster in cancer care sitting in the chair, IV beside her, and support person keeping her company.

I remember how at those times in my life the focus was always about being positive. Regardless of how my wife felt, the response to “How are you doing?” was “fine,” just as the movie's character Jane Foster replied — the old “Fake it till you make it” strategy.

READ MORE: Lights, Camera, Cancer: A Look at How the Disease Is Portrayed in the Media

As often as cancer now shows up in storylines now, this type of experience will continue to happen to everyone and all we can do is accept and let it flow past “Like a bridge over troubled water.”

Cancer is now in the news daily. Often it is a story about a new treatment or a story of a miraculous survival. People openly interview about their struggles. This is a great accomplishment, because it is no longer a taboo subject. Earlier diagnosis, knowledge of available treatments, access to clinical trials and the connections to support groups have all increased exponentially.

I cannot give much advice on treating PTSD other than my own experience and what has helped me. Seeking counseling during and after treatment for both my wife (patient) and myself (caregiver) and our children has made our PTSD more manageable.


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