“birds

Whenever I heard a story about someone suffering from PTSD, it almost always seemed to be someone affected by military service.  At least that’s what I can recall when hearing anything about PTSD.  I always associated it with the people who served in wars and fought for our country.  You could ignorant for that and I certainly wouldn’t argue.  I can also recall a time in which I NEVER thought I would experience PTSD in my own life.  That time was a short seven years earlier.  Let me explain.

Let’s go back in time to February 2010.  I was a 31-year-old single girl whose biggest focus was my career path.  Where was I going and how fast could I get there?  I wanted to be the best at what I did and I worked as hard as I could to get there.  It was my focus, my passion, and my life.  Sure, I loved to hang out with friends and family, try new things, travel, etc.  My worries at the time were things like:  ‘Why is my refrigerator rattling?’ and ‘How do bees keep getting into my apartment?’ and ‘When will I find the man of my dreams?’  Okay, those are valid worries, especially at that time in my life, but they are not earth shattering by any means.  During that same time period, I was watching the Olympics one Saturday (yes, I remember it like it was yesterday although I literally can’t remember yesterday) and had an itch near the top of my right breast.  I felt a little lump there but didn’t think much of it.  I can honestly say I wasn’t worried, I didn’t panic, I didn’t feel it a million times, and I didn’t dwell on it.  I continued on with my life, felt the lump here and there to see if it changed, and figured if it stayed status quo, I would bring it up to my doctor in June.  Yes, I said June.  And, yes, if your math is right, that would be four months down the road.

“pink

Fast-forward now to June of 2010 when I revealed to my OBGYN that I have this lump in my breast, that at least to me, hasn’t changed.   She doesn’t suspect it’s anything too serious but would rather be safe than sorry and sends me down the path of imaging, tests, and biopsies.  None of these scream cancer but they don’t rule it out either.  I can feel my world starting to shift.  Low and behold, on July 13th 2010, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  My world had officially crashed. My treatment story is typical in the breast cancer world:  I had a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction, and chemo.   When I graduated from a cancer patient to a cancer survivor in November of 2010, that’s when my world went from hot, searing white to empty, wasteland black. 

For five months, my focus had been on only treating the cancer with the hope of just living long enough to see another year.  I buried my emotions, put a smile on face and moved forward.  This was my coping mechanism because if I let myself really see what was happening to me, what could still happen, and the fact that death could be knocking on my door, there was no way I would get through that next five months of treatment.  This strategy was both the best and the worst thing for me.  It got me through treatment but opened up the door for PTSD to barge its way into my life.

I survived the holidays, but by January 2011, I had emotionally crashed and burned.  I cried uncontrollably, I was scared that the cancer was already on its way back into my life, and my fear of dying was out of control.  I talked to a therapist for a little bit and that sort of helped.  I figured I just had to get over it, find that smile I once had and go on with my life.  I pretended I didn’t have a “new normal” and just went back to what I thought was me.  This illusion lasted four years. 

During that next few years, I started noticing that I became more and more anxious, thinking that my cancer was going to come back.  This bothered me because everyone else was saying how over the years, you become less and less fearful.  I was going down a completely opposite path.  As cancerversary one came and went, followed by cancerversary two, I found my fears were nearly out of control.  I couldn’t remember certain elements of my life.  I looked back at the first year after my cancer diagnosis and I couldn’t remember any of it.  It was literally a black hole.  People would use the words “cancer”, “cancer survivor”, or “lump” and I would tune out.  I’d basically black out, if you will.  It was like living in a movie and where someone would say the word “lump” and I would immediately shoot back in time in a swirling black hole, spinning, twisting, and screaming, catapulted out of my body down a dark rabbit hole.  I could not even hear those words without essentially having an anxiety attack right there on the spot.  Mentally and emotionally, I would be standing in that waiting room waiting for the results of my tests.  I would be hearing the words “you have cancer” over and over again.  These episodes were terrifying because I didn’t understand what was happening to me.

I also started to compulsively feel around for lumps all over my body—everywhere.  Every time I had an ache or a pain, I would feel in that area of my body:  is there a lump? As the years progressed, this would get worse and worse until I was literally rubbing areas of my body raw.  It does not take a doctor to say that something is wrong.  Something was wrong; I knew this was not a normal part of post-cancer life.  And if I wasn’t being triggered by a body ache, I’d be triggered by other survivors’ stories.  I’d hear anything, such as a friend telling a story:  “my friend’s grandma’s sister’s mother’s cousin found a lump on their arm and it turned out to be cancer.”  I’d run to the bathroom and feel around my arm for an hour.  This would happen daily. 

By my fourth cancerversary it got to the point where I could barely function.  I would get up, go to work, come home and start over again the next day.  I did it without emotion.  I did it without a care.  I figured what was the point as I was thinking that the next check of my body would find a lump and my life would be over.  So I spent all my time worrying about that instead of living my life.  I figured if I could disconnect from my body than maybe it wouldn’t be so bad and I could stop thinking of cancer.  I was constantly feeling for lumps, convinced there was something there that the doctors just hadn’t found. 

“PTSD”

It was after I had done the lump review of my body one day that I came to terms with the fact that I needed help.  I was exhausted from worrying every minute.  I was harming my body.  I was not living at all.  I figured if I didn’t get help soon, I’d be unable to get out of bed eventually.  I had fought way too hard to keep my life so why was I not living it? For whatever reason, it clicked at that moment.  I remember the next day searching for therapists that were in my network, making calls and hoping I found one that I could connect with.  That day became another moment when cancer had changed my life.

Making that call to see a therapist is the best thing I have done.  I don’t shy away from it. I don’t pretend I don’t see one.  And I pretty much tell everyone I know that I go.  It’s part of my recovery and my best way in healing my emotional turmoil.  She is the one that told me PTSD is possible with any trauma.  I remember thinking, “I had no trauma in my life.  I was diagnosed with cancer.  I wasn’t fighting a war.  I wasn’t in a car accident.  What did trauma have to do with what is happening?”  She explained to me that a cancer diagnosis is trauma.  It changed my life.  It was terrifying for me.  My mind had decided to block out the worst of it and that’s where the PTSD came in to play.  It’s really a defense mechanism.  It worked when it needed to but minimized my ability to establish support and balance.

There was so much emotion I never came to terms with.  The whole process of accepting a “new normal” was the hardest.  I had to see that I am not that old person.  I am someone different and that’s okay.  I continue to work a lot on acceptance.  I have to accept that my life is different and I am different.  I have different fears and different needs.  Part of my issue is survivor’s guilt.  I found my lump and did nothing for four months.  How come it didn’t kill me then?  I know plenty of people that weren’t that lucky.  It scares me to think I may not get a second chance.

The PTSD has affected quite a bit of my cancer past and it has blacked almost an entire year that, even now, I still can’t remember.  We work on that in my therapy sessions.  It’s hard.  It’s scary.  There are emotions and events that my mind has blocked out for a number of reasons and uncovering them is not very pleasant.  However, as we work through it, it feels good.  I didn’t mourn my old life for the first four years of my post cancer world.  That was part of the recovery I denied myself.  Now, we work through those feelings in my therapy session and I mourn the old me.  That’s okay and it actually feels good.

“survivor”

If wishes were abundant, I’d obviously wish that cancer never came my way.  However, I can’t change that.  I certainly do wish that I had allowed my emotions to run their course during all this as opposed to bottling them up and setting them off on a shelf.  I hurt myself by not going through all those feelings, but I am proud of myself for going to get help and not running from the stigma that come along with sitting on a couch talking about your feelings.  Had I gone earlier, maybe I would not have suffered so much in the last few years.  However, we all know that hindsight is 20/20.  A cancer diagnosis and treatment is a scary world.  I have found that the aftermath is even tougher.  Learning to live as a cancer survivor is a daily task for me.  However, I now know how to be open to those feelings and emotions.  I don’t beat myself up like I used to.  I carry acceptance in my pocket and use it as needed.  Day by day I am learning my life on this “new normal” path that I am walking. No more tip toeing for me.

Accept, believe, and life will proceed,

Dana Stewart
Co-founder, Dragonfly Angel Society 
FB:  The Dragonfly Angel Society – Cancer Survivorship