When Cancer PTSD Is Overwhelming, Survivor Says Write And Make Lists


Breast cancer and melanoma survivor shares ways to cope with fear of recurrence and cancer worries.

I am seven and a half years out from my breast cancer diagnosis and four years out from my melanoma. Back in the beginning and still now, when the cancer fear of recurrence, limitations after treatment, and PTSD back up on me, I go to my journal and write. Write. Write Write. Writing and list-making helped me through cancer and beyond, and I hope my thoughts here can help you too.

Thoughts get stuck in my head and spin around and around and around. Right now I am waiting for a breast MRI test, a meeting with my oncologist, and a treatment plan for my genetic results (PALB2). As we all know, we can’t go over, under or around cancer. We go through it. The journaling process helps me cope. I write about my thoughts and feelings and worries and sadness. Writing helps me and it is much better than all of those feelings coming out side ways at me or my family or my friends.

When I go back and read my journal, it provides perspective. I got through those tough moments! Though some things felt overwhelming at the time, they didn’t sink me. I got through. I wrote Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools to encourage and provide resources to other cancer patients and survivors. It includes my research, feelings, and even some of my journaling. At some point in the cancer process, one of the things many survivors discover is that one way to make better sense of an awful experience is to give back and help others.

I made lists before and after cancer. Making lists was a great way to get troublesome thoughts and things that I needed to get done out of spinning around in my head and down on paper instead. Some lists were tools—an ongoing list of worries to discuss with the doctor at the next appointment, a list of ways to calm myself down, a list of tricks that helped me get through chemotherapy, and a list to cope with radiation weariness.

I still try to make to-do lists. A cancer survivor’s fate has no guarantee. Actually, no one's fate has a guarantee but survivors are more aware of this. Lists help me be deliberate about accomplishing what I want to accomplish.

Journaling and list-making don’t solve things, but they help. Journaling helps me move through the bittersweet flavor of life consciously. Cancer survivorship is a double-edged sword—there is bitter and sweet. We have no other rational choice. Our blinders have been stripped away. We learn to accept this, and move forward day by day. One day at a time.

Here is a list of some of my tools to fight worry-brain:

1. Distraction—time with family, an escapist movie or book, even shopping.

2. Keeping my hands busy—crocheting or any kind of crafting to tie up my brain and keep away the cancer thoughts.

3. Immersion—give myself the time and permission to feel and journal about my cancer worries and other worries. Cancer is big. Life is big. It is okay to cry.

4. Connecting—I reach out to fellow survivors, family, and friends when I need help.

5. Reaching to out to nature, my belief system, and my community of faith to keep perspective.

I am trying. I am human, and I wouldn't call it a total success. I try to show up for Life and sometimes that is the best I can do. Sometimes that is all I can do. I have fear of recurrence some days and life goes on.

Cancer improved my gratitude and appreciation for life, but I probably won’t ever say that cancer was the best thing that happened to me. Cancer is cancer. It is a disease. I would love to have the fear of recurrence not be part of my life, but I don’t think that will ever happen. I am grateful for the people connections that came through my cancer experiences and I am grateful for some of the life lessons. Still, I would say that most survivors, including me, would rather have a different way to achieve “personal growth”?!

To help you through cancer, consider journaling and list-making through diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. These tools are helpful for getting through cancer and other bumps in the road! You can get through this.

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