PTSD and Cancer

Bad hairI woke up this morning looking like I had been in a war zone. Hair all askew, overslept by almost an hour and a half – NOT on purpose. My feet hurt (a remnant of chemo) and I felt like I had done battle all night instead of getting that good night’s sleep that seems to constantly evade me. It was my cat Pepper who finally convinced me that I needed to get out of bed to feed her.

It’s been two and a half years since my cancer diagnosis, and almost two years since I finished my chemo and radiation. You’d think that would be the end of it, but NOOOOOO. In my case, I have to take a pill daily, and every month I have my chemo port flushed and get a shot to prevent recurrence of the bone metastases. That’s all well and good, and actually it’s quite helpful, because I’m still actively doing something to prevent the Big C from visiting again.

But there are other issues to deal with. I am no longer in crisis mode. I no longer need help with anything around the house or any other tasks I couldn’t do for myself when I was sick. I can certainly make my own toast…

Unfortunately for me, and for many cancer survivors, there comes the time when you still feel the stresses of initial trauma, but to the outside world you are normal, healthy, and fully functional. And, just the fact that you are no longer actively fighting the disease can cause stress, especially when you have other major stress factors in your life like I do. (They shall remain nameless for now, although the words ‘toxic s**thole) come to mind…)

ptsd injurySo imagine my surprise when I googled, “cancer PTSD”. Tons of websites. There’s a name for what I feel. Seriously, who wouldn’t have PTSD when you’ve been blindsided by a cancer diagnosis that goes from Stage 1 to 4 in a matter of weeks? And here I thought I’d done pretty well handling all of it.

As it turns out, 1 in 4 women who have been newly diagnosed with breast cancer experience symptoms of PTSD. Apparently it’s quite common for cancer survivors, or anyone with a life-threatening illness, to develop PTSD. We know it best from soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. What is PTSD?

According the National Institute of Mental Health,

When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger. devotes an entire section of its website to PTSD in cancer patients. It’s a great resource, not only for PTSD, but for all aspects of cancer treatment.

No one really knows why one person gets PTSD and another one under similar circumstances doesn’t. There is a ton of research to show that the brain changes physically, but researchers don’t know exactly what those changes mean.

One thing is for sure. You don’t get over it by yourself. The basic treatments are therapy, either alone or group, and/or medication, depending on the severity of the problem. Our society doesn’t look kindly on anyone who seeks therapy, thinking them weak, crazy, or lazy. It has also been a red flag for insurance companies to deny coverage. (Thank you, Affordable Care Act!)

All this to say that I’ve finally realized that I can’t deal with this by myself, and I’ve started some targeted therapy to grapple with this issue. Not a moment too soon either – my last blood count showed a very low white blood cell count, which means my immune system is weak. Due to stress, no doubt in my mind. The LAST thing I want is for this cancer to make a return visit.

I’ll keep y’all posted!



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