I’m A Cancer Survivor and I Have PTSD

What do you know about the symptoms and management of your own mental health? Today is PTSD Awareness Day. Take a moment to read this cancer fighter’s story about her battle with PTSD and cancer treatment.

I just got home from an impromptu chat with my therapist and he reminded me that self-care is critical for my wellness. He knows I am a writer, and so he said "write." So here I am, writing. I should warn you that I do not believe in candy-coating things, especially since going through breast cancer in 2013. Had I known then what I know now, I would have handled my mental wellness much better and I would have had my therapist walking me through it every step of the way.

It was not until after my diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy and finally being in remission that I finally spoke up and said "I need help." I had fought the fight and won, but now I was supposed to be back to normal. I felt abandoned and I felt stripped of myself and my strength and my control. I stood in my living room alone and sobbed. And then I picked up the phone and asked for help.

That was two years ago. I was lucky to be paired with an amazing social worker, a man--which, by the way, I did not see as lucky at first because I questioned, “what the heck is he gonna know about breast cancer?” I drew my battle lines with him the first session and told him I was there to talk breast cancer and nothing else.

A few months ago I finally asked him, "So, what is wrong with me?" He had two answers: PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and MDE (Major Depressive Episode). In that moment I felt huge relief. I finally had a name for what I was going through, and that gave me knowledge and power. And it made sense because when you really think about it, cancer is traumatic. From the first indication something might be wrong the trauma starts. Every test, every needle, every biopsy, every waiting moment, the diagnosis, the surgeries, the treatment, dealing with family and friends and health care teams. TRAUMA.

When I thought of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder I thought of soldiers, warriors, heroes. But I never thought about cancer patients and their families. I never thought of myself.

I want you to get a picture in your mind: Legos. One colorful Lego piece snapped on to another, building a wall. Different colors, different sizes. On one Lego I want you picture the word "cancer," on another see the word "accident," on another see "job loss," "loss of a loved one."

Are you getting the picture? Our lives are full of trauma. Little traumas and big traumas. For me, personally, my breast cancer was the Lego piece that toppled my wall. It was a big trauma that my mind could not wrap itself around and suddenly I started getting triggered, flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, insomnia, self-medicating, and self-destruction. For me it was breast cancer that began stripping down the layers of my mind’s defenses. With gentle guidance and support of my therapist I began to reveal traumas both big and small from my life and how the PTSD became a part of me.

Education is the first step to understanding where you're at with your own mental health. As one cancer fighter to another, I want you to look at this list of symptoms and really consider seeing a therapist yourself if you recognize anything.

There are four types of PTSD symptoms:

  • Reliving the event (also called "re-experiencing symptoms").
  • Avoiding situations that remind you of the event.
  • Negative changes in beliefs and feelings.
  • Feeling keyed up (also called "hyperarousal")

I am still in therapy. Last week was a really bad week and I put my family and therapist through the wringer. But they stood with me then and they still stand with me now.

There is so much more I would like to share with you about this topic, so much more that I am learning. But let me finish with this: Start by admitting "I need help with this." Go to your doctor and tell them "I need help with my mental health with this journey." Even as I have been writing this blog over the last couple of weeks, I have fallen--and fallen hard, and had to extend my hand, my heart, my spirit, and my trust to my active mental health support team.

This week I learned that in order to be in control I have to relinquish control to someone trustworthy who can help me regain control. Do NOT do this ALONE.

Do you recognize any of the symptoms Barbara mentions here? If so, discuss what you’re doing to take care of your mental health in the comments below!

Photo courtesy of Alex Jones