Cancer PTSD Almost Killed Me Emotionally, Therapy is Reviving Me
My life was threatened eight years ago when I discovered a large malignant tumor over my heart, encroaching into my jugular vein. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. My initial reaction to this diagnosis was surrendering completely and going into the fetal position. I then chose to begin chemotherapy in order to survive. Chemotherapy did just that: I survived. Surviving death implies living again. I thought that surviving chemo automatically meant that I was alive again.
During the course of my illness and treatment, I experienced an emotional roller coaster that careened me between phases of anxiety, loneliness, depression, and anger. All of these emotions were a direct result of my disease and chemotherapy treatment. These emotions eventually succeeded in destroying my psychological well-being, manipulating me into a concrete entrapment of self-hatred and worthlessness.
Nothing in my life has ever made me feel more isolated and estranged from anyone around me than the years of hardships after chemotherapy. For the first time, it seemed as though anything others tried to say to comfort me was always the wrong thing to say. As humans, we need both large and small support systems daily to survive psychologically. We complain to one another about work. We vent about relationships and chores. We laugh about these things together at times. But chemotherapy is not relatable to most people. I felt misunderstood by them as they themselves could not relate to this specific struggle.
People’s remarks often seemed callous, insensitive, and even offensive. I began laying out the stones that would shield me from those around me in a self-righteous attempt to remove myself from their “toxic” remarks and insensitivities. I was slowly becoming estranged from everyone around me. I saw each person in my life disappear from what I had hoped would be my safe space. I found myself alone within that safe space.
I found temporary comfort in this, but only until the loneliness caught up with me. This was not typical social loneliness, it was a hopeless feeling of never being understood. It was as if I was speaking a Martian language and living a Martian culture with Earthlings on Earth far far away from any other Martians. This feeling would eat away at me and have me in tears; it was the main root of my depression from the experiences resulting from chemotherapy post-treatment. I was completely terrified.
These feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and terror went on for years as I began to endure the chronic side effects of my treatment. At first, I thought that anxiety and loneliness were the only free falls and loops I would have to endure on this horrible ride. When the phase of depression came, I finally realized where I was. But by then it was too late; I was unprepared to brace myself and couldn’t resist the violent swirls yet to come as I fell into the bottomless abyss of my emotional death. And then…I died. Can you believe that? I survived cancer only to soar right into the mouth of death.
In the physical world, I appeared alive. Emotionally, the effects of this ride had me walking dazed along a skewed path. I did not even realize that the ride had crashed, I was not even aware that I had died. I had only just started to come to terms with the fact that I was even on the roller-coaster. Luckily, I also realized that I was not alone on this rollercoaster. Apparently, most cancer survivors are also on this ride after treatment. I, like many others, had failed to be able to handle everything on my own. I was finally able to admit that I needed help. I finally gathered the courage I needed to find that help. Now, I’ve been in therapy for months and am just starting to learn how layered Cancer Survivor Psychology is.
Many files that held pieces of myself were scattered and ripped away from me on the horrific roller-coaster ride. Now, I am tasked with piecing together those lost files. What did I like before cancer? What were my personal goals? How did I unwind? It only took me eight years to pick up where I had left off before treatment. But this time wasn’t because of cancer or even cancer treatment. It was the PTSD that lurks in the shadows of this whole experience.
As a Muslim, I had always held a deep conviction that we were created solely to worship. I found myself humbled and crying many nights in prayer, as depression can be so painful. Nevertheless, I always knew God was right there hovering over me, patiently awaiting my return to Him through my distractions. I remembered that I could never overcome this alone. Worship for me turned into having faith during hardships and patience during life’s tests.
No one can survive alone, and I now realize that no one is really alone. The empty safe space still had me in it. The safe space began to have a special place in my heart as I realized that I was enough. I was enough to be there for myself when no one else could. I began to embrace the experience and lessons of my struggles. I identified my own personal values that emerged through these very struggles.
With time, treatment, and awareness, I am beginning to get to know myself all over again. I’ve gone shopping to decorate my home with my essence. I am adding self-care to my daily routine by doing little things like painting my nails in all the brilliant shades that symbolize my spirit. I have gone back to school to refresh those interests that once fit into the album of my mind. I think it’s working. I’m trusting the process. And today, I feel was the first day that I have had an appetite for life again.
Photo courtesy of author.