PTSD - The Cancer Version

Routine check-ups are few and far between believe it or not after a cancer diagnosis. Once active treatment is complete, it feels like you are dropped from your team of doctors/oncologists/surgeons and the ongoing never-ending appointments abruptly halts.

I am supposed to see my family doctor once a year and call if I have concerns. Last week was my yearly appointment including a melanoma skin check. With being a very busy summer this appointment came up fast in my calendar and I didn’t think too much of it.

The protocol of wearing your mask and hand sanitizing has become the norm and I am comfortable since doing this for the past 6 months. I was led into the exam room and changed into a gown waiting for my doctor, when suddenly so many emotions and memories of appointments, waiting, unknowns, and feelings flooded my mind. Was it the room, the gown, the silence? I slipped my mask up and took some deep meditative breathes that thankfully I have practiced regularly. This did help as meditation does and I focused on my breathing and not the hundreds of other thoughts flying in and out of my mind.

When the doctor came, she sensed I was feeling a bit overwhelmed and we chatted for a few minutes before starting my checkup. I had a few spots I wanted her to look at and all were nothing. A sigh of relief. As she was just about to finish up, she told me I had two Basal cell carcinoma spots on my chest, and she would burn them off. Basal cell carcinoma is a type of skin cancer that most often develops on areas of skin exposed to the sun. It is the most common form of skin cancer and most frequently occurring form of all cancers.

Wait, what? Where?

I couldn’t even see them; she explained how she can spot them and that there are a blood supply and little veins. It's quite common for women if they have skin cancer for it to form on the chest because of how it is exposed to the sun. Immediately, I felt the rush of "this is my life forever as a cancer patient" with BRCA2, and as diligent as I am with sunscreen and covering up its simple just not enough. I was only checked one year ago, how could I have two more spots. I was familiar with a basal cell carcinoma as I had already had one removed two years before my cancer diagnosis. It was also on my chest and they sent it away to ensure it was not melanoma.

The treatment was intense, it hurt with every touch, however, it didn’t take long, and I was back in my car, shedding a few tears. You see, it was a Friday, and my family, and I were packing up to go camping later that day, I was working most of the morning and by dinner, we would be feet up and enjoying the warm weather and outdoors. I know this was nothing compared to my initial diagnosis, but it’s the post-traumatic stress that is triggered, sparking a flurry of emotions and memories. I felt a little bit in shock, I wasn’t expecting her to find anything or treat me nonetheless.

When I arrived home, I explained everything to my husband who with open arms gave me a gigantic hug and just let me feel how I needed to feel. I decided that this again is a small page in my book, one I was going to flip to the next page and keep on keeping on.

I thought about the experience several times over our camping weekend. I was bothered by the thoughts that there were 2 this time, what if more next, what if we missed one, etc. I was careful about sun exposure and just felt a little deflated.

Triggers exist. They are different for everyone as well as how they make us feel. I have been experienced post-traumatic stress a few times since my diagnosis. Once was simply paying for parking, being 4 months of no appointments it took me back to all the times I had been there before. Certain smells especially lemon, as I once diffused it when I was super unwell during chemo and my brain now associates one with the other.

People with cancer can develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress after their diagnosis, or at any time during or after treatment. What post-traumatic stress can look like:

  • Feel anxious, worried, scared, or angry

  • Have nightmares and flashbacks to cancer-related events

  • Avoid places, events, or people that trigger bad memories

  • Have intense feelings of guilt, shame, or hopelessness

  • Have trouble sleeping or concentrating

  • Lose interest in activities or relationships that used to be enjoyable

  • Abuse drugs or alcohol

  • Feel numb

Talking with friends or family can help, but you might feel like those people can't truly understand what you're going through if they haven't had cancer. Other resources include:

  • A social worker or therapist. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a professional who can help you sort through your emotions and come up with ways to deal with your feelings. Some cancer centres provide social workers who work specifically with cancer patients.

  • Other cancer survivors. Support groups, whether in your community or online, provide a great place to share your feelings and hear from others who are going through what you're experiencing.

Devise your plan for coping with your emotions. Have an open mind and try different strategies to find out what works for you. I highly recommend not suffering alone, talking about these feelings lets you take control of them instead of the emotions coming out in a way you didn't choose.

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