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Cancer Is Never Really Out of Sight, Out of Mind

December 8th, 2017 |
Emotional Support

by R_Desjarlait | Survivor: Colon and Rectal Cancer    Connect


A few months ago I was thinking that there was an association between PTSD and cancer. I hadn't read anything specific about the topic. PTSD has, of course, become a catch-all buzz word that is applied to a number of situations. I'm not one to jump on the PTSD bandwagon for every little thing that that affects me. But what about cancer? Does PTSD have a specific connection to cancer survivors? Based on my own experiences, the answer to that is yes.

My body is witness to the trauma of the two surgeries I went through. My first surgery for colon cancer in 2013 left minimal scars - three scars from Laparoscopic surgery. But it was the surgery from cancer recurrence in 2016 that left the most visible scars - a long scar running from my sternum to my navel (and my navel no longer exists - it was obliterated as a result of the surgery), and two drainage tube scars. Then there is the scar from the insertion of the port in my chest. The port itself heightens the trauma - a foreign, visible bulk under my flesh. When I touch my port, I can also feel the tube that runs from it into my neck.

The fact is that I cannot look at myself in a mirror.

To do so brings it all back. A four year battle with cancer that has left a once blemish-free body scarred from hours in OR to rid my body of this horrendous disease. I mourn this loss.

But the trauma doesn't end there. Sixteen rounds of chemotherapy has left its mark and the subliminal after-effects linger. They are part of the new normal that is part of my life. And there are odors that bring me right back to the infusion chair. For example, I can't tolerate the odor of alcohol swabs. To overcome the odor, I have to breathe through my mouth. And, oddly, the odor of plastic sets off uncomfortable thoughts and associations. Why plastic? I don't know. Perhaps it's from the plastic of countless IV bags and packages that needles are wrapped in. Perhaps it's from the plastic gowns that the cancer nurse puts on when she injects the chemo into your veins.

I think the most traumatic experience is the thought of recurrence.

It's something that survivors live with. It's something you put on a high shelf somewhere, but it's never really out of sight, out of mind. In my case, recurrence was put on a very high shelf. After my first surgery my cancer was declared as Stage I. No need for chemo. I thought I was home-free considering the excellent 5-year survival rate for Stage I colon cancer survivors. But low and behold, in the third year of my post-cancer surgery, The Beast made a reappearance with a cancerous lesion on the left lob of my liver. Nine hours in OR. Accompanied with four rounds of pre-operative chemo and twelve rounds of adjuvant chemo.

My cancer is in remission. But that comes at a cost - lab and CT scans every three months for three years. Then CT scans twice a year for two years. Five years of this and I can't help but to wonder if I'll really reach the finish line. Is it any wonder that I've told some people that this disease will kill me yet?

If that isn't PTSD, I don't know what is.


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Robert DesJarlait is a writer and artist. He is from the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation. He is a four-year colon cancer survivor. He is a well-known cancer survivor advocate in the Native American community.


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