Cancer PTSD: Help From a Breast Cancer Survivor


Two-time cancer survivor seven years out from her first diagnosis shares how she copes with her cancer "worry brain."

We all want scientific research to save us by finding a cure to cancer, right? Also important until then, I think we need ways to cope with cancer's anxiety, fear and PTSD, that could be provided at the time of diagnosis. These coping skills are desperately needed in the days, weeks, months and years after a cancer diagnosis. Lots of cancer survivors, including me, are still consumed and worn out from living with the worry and uncertainty created by our cancer diagnosis. Here are the thoughts that help me through this.

Let your doctors know what you are feeling as a result of this diagnosis. I wish doctors were psychic, but they are not. They can't help if they don't know. Some of us are more "bothered" by the words "you have cancer" than others. Spill the beans. Use the resources that are offered. When first diagnosed, my best resource was the Internet, but it could be scary and sad out there too. Eventually, I got more help from real people in the same room with me-fellow survivors, a local support group, and a talk therapist.

Accept help from friends and family. Gulp. I did these things: accepted help from my family, friends and faith community, saw my oncology talk therapist, joined a support group and met with breast cancer survivors further out from diagnosis. Like the game show, use the lifelines that you have.

Nurture and coddle your body and mind. If ever there was a time to do this, it is now. I took anti-depressant and anxiety and sleep medicines. I made the time and extra effort to eat healthfully, sleep when I could, and I exercised (as okayed by my doctor). Cancer treatment can be a traumatic experience and it took time and energy physically and mentally to get through it and to recover from it. I have said this before: Be patient and gentle with your feelings and your body.

When you get weary and tired, it is OK to slow down. The sad and worried feelings you may feel are normal in an abnormal icky situation (cancer treatment and beyond). Get help from support group meetings and by getting together with other people who going through what you are going through. We understand.

Learn a new way to balance. Cancer gave you a super hard shove. You didn't request it, but it happened. Now, as a survivor, you are tasked to find your balance again. It is a new way to balance where you are responsible about follow-up tests and appointments and keeping up on ongoing research, and yet not too preoccupied emotionally and mentally by your cancer diagnosis. Give cancer what you need to do to survive, but don't let cancer overrun your thoughts and emotions. I won't give cancer my soul. I regain my balance as time marches onward. There is more and more research about the mental and emotional impact of cancer. There is a better and better understanding of how stressful the cancer treatments and follow-up processes are and how life-changing the words "You have cancer" are.

Be unique because you are. We all use some of the same coping mechanisms and we each develop ones that are unique to us. That makes sense and is just fine. Work hard to figure out what works for you. What distracts you? What relaxes you? What helps time pass? Keep a journal to help sort out the differences between the good days and bad days. Learn what sets you off and what is helpful. Give some of these thoughts a chance: looking out the window, taking a walk, experimenting with arts and crafts that keep your hands busy and your mind distracted, simple meditation and/or yoga, and mental distractions like reading, television or movies, games, puzzles, and possibly even shopping (it is visually distracting)! Figure out what works best for you and with time, it will truly get better. You can do this!

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