Holiday Reflections and PTSD

April 25, 2019
Shira Zwebner
Shira Zwebner

A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at hipstermomblog.com

How to manage PTSD over the holidays and making the transition from Cancer Fighter to Cancer Survivor.

Passover last year was beyond difficult, with my sixth R-CHOP treatment for stage IVA non-Hodgkin's lymphoma on the eve of the seven-day holiday. I spent the Seder, traditionally a festive event where family and friends gather together in their holiday finest, alone in a bedroom in tears. Instead of my best holiday dress, I wore pajamas and a wool cap over my sweaty, bald head. My cheeks were flushed and swollen from the six prednisone pills taken hours earlier, my body alternating between hot flashes and bone-chilling cold. We were sad and exhausted, entering the spring season with my cancer battle still waging and the constant fear that I wouldn't emerge victorious.

During the week, we spent a morning at the hospital for my weekly PICC line cleaning and blood draw. My hematologist-oncologist had taken the holiday off and left instructions with the doctor on call. She reviewed my blood counts, told me when to start the Neupogen injections to get my white blood cells up and wished me a good holiday. Later, the nurse gently peeled off the sticker holding the tubes against my skin and disinfected the area, chatting easily about her own Passover Seder and her fun travel plans for the remainder of the week. I stayed quiet and listened, knowing that my own children would be spending the holiday without me. I looked over at my husband with sadness. It was his 44th birthday and my illness had taken its toll. He just couldn't keep up the positivity that day.

We had left the hospital and I insisted that I take him out to a birthday brunch. We ate out of necessity and not hunger, picking at our food while staring gloomily at the people around us. When my husband went to the bathroom, I whispered to our waitress that it was his birthday and minutes later she returned to our table with a slice of chocolate cake and a sparkler. My husband's mouth smiled but his eyes were sad as we watched the sparkler go out on his cake. With great difficulty, we got through the holidays and I swore that if I were in remission the following year, we would celebrate the holiday with tremendous happiness.

I hadn't accounted for PTSD, which reared its ugly head as the Passover holiday approached this year. The flashbacks and the anxiety, the way my body started shaking when we walked into the same restaurant where we had celebrated my husband's birthday a year earlier. Insomnia hit me hard in the final countdown to the holiday and I found myself working longer hours, fighting exhaustion before the holiday even started.

Recognizing that I needed help, I researched my symptoms online, and found articles about PTSD on Dana Farber and through the CURE Today Voices section. It was comforting to know that I wasn't alone, that many other cancer survivors have navigated PTSD after treatment.

Today, I'm focusing less on PTSD and more on Post Traumatic Growth, as I work on changing my mindset. While last year, I spent majority of the holiday alone in a room resting, this year I yearn to be outdoors. We've walked for miles, holding hands and laughing. We went to movies and historical locations, met up with friends and spent quality time with family. When the anxiety gets to be too much, I just close my eyes and fight through the flashbacks. Instead, I focus on this holiday and not last holiday, and work hard on making new, happy memories while distancing myself from last year's nightmare.

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