Experiencing Post Traumatic Stress After Cancer

A cancer survivor explains that similar to combat veterans who experience post-traumatic stress after war, cancer survivors live with the impacts of their journey even after being in remission.

I remember being a young sailor deployed to the Persian Gulf, at the time a combat zone. On station in the Northern Gulf aboard a U.S. Navy warship, we spent week after week working around the clock. In between being on watch, sometimes port and starboard, meaning 12 hours on and 12 off, then doing my day job, I was lucky to get four hours of rack time a night. Saying this led to me being a stress-puppy on steroids is an understatement. Doing hard things like this does hard things to people. Even today certain triggers cause me to flashback to that time – seeing a military relic parked out front of a reserve center, hearing the flop-flop of the rotors of a helicopter overhead, smelling the pungent scent of diesel, or any number of things. I never know what will cause it, but I know it will happen.

Cancer is much the same. Our life is marching along smartly – each day our alarm clock rouses us from a deep sleep, and after a rapid-fire breakfast, if any at all, off to work we go, birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated, the years click by, and then WAM! We get a call from our doctor about seeing something “unusual” in our recent lab result or scan, or worse, the awful feeling experienced over a weekend leading to an unexpected trip to the ER. Overnight our life changes.

Soon our calendar is filled with appointments with surgical, radiation and medical (chemo) oncologists (cancer specialists). Our vocabulary morphs from talking about work and our kids to what hospital is the best one to have our surgery or when we can start our chemo and radiation. Friends express their shock and offer us their thoughts and prayers. Our life caves in on itself. We wonder if the treatments will stop our cancer’s onslaught. We have our doubts. Our doctors don’t know. Life screeches to a halt. We forget to breathe.

I wish this was the easy part of the cancer journey, but it isn’t. Post-treatment, it is always on our minds whether we will be one of the lucky ones who escape its grasp, or will it come back when we least expect it? Follow-ups with our oncologist who by now we have become best friends of a sort present a special terror where we wonder if we will be told it’s back. We crave “normal,” but it runs from us.

We try to forget all this and go about living our lives but when we least expect it something triggers us to drop back into our days of active treatment. One moment everything is sunshine and in an instant, we are once again laying in a hospital bed or being scrubbed to start a chemo IV. Or maybe we are back in the radiation room elevated in the air on the table as that massive radiation head swings around us, snapping its jaws and radiating us from every angle. It all comes flooding back.

This cancer-induced post-traumatic stress (PTS), much like the combat variety, can be triggered by the simplest things: driving past the hospital where we were once treated, news of a good friend stricken and starting treatment next week, a commercial on TV for any one of those cancer charities, or running into someone in scrubs at the supermarket picking something up for supper. The triggers are endless. When they happen, I find myself once again reliving the weeks in the hospital after my surgery to remove my pancreatic tumor, as well as the six weeks of Monday to Friday radiation treatments, followed by months of chemo.

Some would think after eight years, where many don’t see two, I would be beyond this. But I am not. Many never get beyond it. So how do I handle these triggers which cause me to flashback to my months of treatment?

Accept that it’s normal.

A sudden remembrance of those horrid days of treatments is normal. Much like breathing, it's part of being human. Our minds clench on to memories we wish they would delete forever. Accept that it’s normal.

Step through it.

When I find myself once again back there, I first accept it, then I focus on what’s happening in the right now world in front of me. Soon the darkness melts away and I’m back to right now. Step through it.

Talk to other survivors.

Talking to other survivors can help. They more than understand what cancer-induced PTS is like. Finding out you are not alone can make a big difference. Talk to other survivors.

Seek help if needed.

If nothing else helps, talk to someone who specializes in helping cancer survivors move beyond surviving to living. Your clinic may have one on staff or they’ll know who is good around town. There is no shame in seeking help. It could be the best decision for you. Seek help if needed.

PTS after cancer is normal if not expected. Ways to beat it include accepting that it’s normal, stepping through it, talking to other survivors and seeking help if needed.

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