William Ramshaw resides in the expansive Pacific Northwest. He is a six-year survivor of pancreatic cancer and has written a memoir Gut Punched! Facing Pancreatic Cancer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a number of new challenges to patients with cancer, and one of them is reliving the isolation and anxiety that cancer brings.
I’m not sure about other cancer survivors but for me, this COVID-thing has caused me to relive the crippling anxiety about whether I would survive my pancreatic cancer or not. For those facing this cancer, many don’t see 6 months, and most don’t see 2 years let alone 5 or more like me.
To halt it from taking me, I had a horrific Whipple Procedure where the top third of my pancreas was lopped off. This led to weeks in the hospital followed by more weeks of radiation and then months of chemo. Even for a stoic person like me, who seldom feels much about anything, stuff like this made me consider how I’d lived, regrets and all and forced me to think about what my end would look like.
Not that this COVID-thing is the same or even close to cancer, but for me, it has resurrected those godawful treatment memories I thought I had barricaded in the basement of my mind. Not that I forgot they were down there but other than hearing them scratch at my basement door now and then, I tried hard to forget them, or forget the best I could.
This COVID-thing has made me wonder what will happen if it gets hold of me. It seems many can handle it fine but with my weakened immune system will I be able to shrug it off like a common cold with the sniffles? Will I be able to let it run its course at home, or will I need to be hospitalized and perhaps be put in ICU on a ventilator? These are all things I don’t want to think let alone talk about. Whether I like it or not, these dreadful thoughts stormed unwelcome into my head, sat me down and ordered me to listen. I wish I could turn up the music to drown them out. I wish I could force myself not to listen, but I can’t. I try to replace them with happier ones, but my mind won’t let go of them. For whatever reason, I’m spellbound. I can’t stop listening.
Some call this phenomenon post-traumatic stress disorder, aka PTSD.
Being a former Navy-guy, I still remember many weeks of sleepless days at sea, some of them in a combat zone where the gloves had come off, being keyed-up in a quiet panic. Most days I got four hours of sleep if even that. Sometimes on a Sunday at sea, if things were calm, we rolled out the BBQs on to the flight deck for Steel Beach. Music blared while we cooked burgers and dogs with the fixings, but that was as good as it got.
It’s hard to explain the brutal toll this 24/7 non-stop pressure takes on a person. Ask anyone who has seen combat, even slight stuff like me, it’s real. Some smell or a jarring sound can trigger memories of it, even being dog-tired after a hard week. So, it is with us cancer survivors. None of us wants to roll back time to our weeks and months of treatments, but amid these anxiety-filled times, it's all too easy to slip back into that gripping fear we thought we had locked away deep inside of us.
For me, thanks to this COVID-thing my anxiety level is ratcheted up all over again.
Once faded memories of my cancer treatments have come roaring back. I’m reliving the past in the present. I’m coping the best I can. I try to disregard what’s happening but even if I ignore the round the clock news about the growth of new cases, worse the deaths, I can’t ignore the stripped bare supermarket shelves that tell me things are not well.
To get beyond this angst I need to face it. I need to step up and acknowledge what is happening to me. This makes me no less of a person, or you less of a person. PTSD, although once laughed at as being silly, is real. If it’s getting worse, seek help but the first step in beating it, like you beat your cancer, is to face it.