I Didn’t Know That Cancer Survivors Can Experience PTSD Until I Did
As many as 1 in 3 cancer survivors experience post-traumatic stress disorder, but many of these cases go undiagnosed. Read more to find out how Kym realized she was experiencing PTSD.
Before cancer, I had not been without a paying job since I was 16. After being diagnosed, due to a medical port being placed in my chest, I became a liability at work and the job was unwilling to accommodate. I had two options: medically retire so that I would have insurance to cover myself and live on a salary that is $2.00 above the poverty line, or have the port removed and go back to work, foregoing all necessary treatment.
I chose to retire and treat, barely surviving and dependent on loved ones to help meet my financial obligations. It was a grueling 22 months of chemotherapy, blood clots, pneumonia episodes, radiation, 3rd degree mind scrambling burns from radiation, on an area of my body where burns should never be. Then, as I got the "all clear", the testing started all over because some of my major organs may have suffered. I had to test every 6 months to see if my cancer was behaving itself in the remission arena. I took my daily dosages of all the post medication I now need to maintain, medicines which alter my weight, moods, joints and ability to think clearly.
When I was finally ready to go back to work, I started to look for jobs obsessively. In one week I literally filled out 25 applications, I was now a professional job seeker. I had to figure out how to explain my sabbatical of 2 years, why I left a job I had for over 25 years that had a decent pay. How do I approach this issue without sounding like I will be sick and out a lot for medical checkups if they hire me? How could I avoid this uncomfortable private issue without sounding like a liar? There was no way. So I carried on this wonderfully positive attitude because wallowing in self-pity would make everyone around me annoyed and uncomfortable.
When someone finally called me about a contract assignment, I became excited. I sang, I put on makeup, and dressed in my best professional outfit. Made coffee, made my lunch, and headed out to meet the Sunny California Traffic Jam...Ahhhhh I was back! This was only the beginning of my rebirth. But the fear, the loss, the mental isolation, tears and fears in the daily shower and the sore, raw swollen knees from the daily prayers and pleas to God for deliverance eventually took its toll...
I started driving and about 30 minutes in, I suffered a debilitating panic attack, I pulled over and tried breathing in and out, in and out. I couldn't stop the tears and body trembles from coming on. I couldn't breathe. I watched others in this parking lot, rushing by me, heading into work and I pulled myself together. I listened to my inner voice repeat over and over again, "Kym, Calm down or you'll get cancer again", "calm down, it's just a job, don't become a workaholic again or the Cancer will return", "if you stress out, your cancer will return, calm down".
I made it into the office - the drive was 2.5 hrs long. I worked hard and performed well, the Attorneys were very impressed, I was able to show my skills off tremendously, and I felt accomplished. At 5pm I drove home and had another anxiety attack. I got in bed at 8 pm and got out of the bed 2 days later. I suffered 3 episodes of panic attacks and could not stop crying, had no appetite and had thoughts of death, not suicide but death - there's a big difference.
I called my doctor to schedule an appointment for a referral to a counselor, I knew I needed help. I began the conversation with my doctor, "Hey I think I'm going through some sort of Post Stress", very calmly he said, "Oh I'm sure you are Kym, you've been through a lot and a lot of cancer patients suffer PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)." Good grief! Couldn't I have been forewarned? How many more issues will present themselves from this nightmare? Why doesn't anyone talk about these things in the 5 support groups I tried giving a chance?
PTSD and the cancer survivor should be as much a part of the discussion of post treatment as the medications that are given.
Yes, it all sounds scary and depressing. Because it was! But take it from me, it gets better. You get stronger, you take your experiences and you make things better for others with similar experiences. For a time, things will suck. But eventually, they'll stop. But you need to take control of your mental health and talk about these things. It will help, I promise.
If you think you are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, do not ignore it. Please reach out for help or contact The APOS Toll-free Helpline.