My Post-Traumatic Stress Experience
Before my mom or I had cancer, I thought that post-traumatic stress was strictly for combat veterans or people who have been victims of abuse. Even though I’d gone several years feeling weighed down by stress and anxiety, I didn’t think that I deserved such a strong title when there were other people in the world who have witnessed FAR worse things over the course of their lifetime. I just didn’t understand why I was feeling so stressed out, exhausted, and completely burnt out on life when I was way luckier than most people in the world.
My oncologist explained that these are pretty reasonable emotions for someone who has been in my situation. Not only did I find out that I had cancer, but we had just been through this with my mom only a year earlier. He explained that he’s not surprised that post-traumatic stress would be an issue right now and that I should consider talking to someone.
Getting permission to be upset
Hearing this was like a breath of fresh air. It felt liberating that someone was actually giving me permission to feel this way. I felt great knowing that someone actually thought it was ok for me to have these feelings, and I wasn’t being judged for it. However, getting me to commit to talking to someone was another story.
I’m a huge believer in therapy and I totally admire people who take charge of their mental health. I saw a therapist in high school during the time of my parent’s divorce, and I found it to be incredibly helpful. But talking to someone about cancer? I wasn’t sure how helpful that would be. I actually avoided talking to people about cancer for fear of what they might say (because people say the darndest things about cancer). Why the heck was I going to put myself in the situation to talk to someone about all of the ways that cancer has wreaked havoc on my life?
For months and months, I placed therapy in the back of my mind but kept making the decision to pass on it. Whenever someone would suggest it (my doctor or friends), I would tell them that I’d consider it but I never actually did. Instead, I cheered on anyone else who decided to see a therapist, because like I said, I think therapy is an awesome coping mechanism.
At the beginning of the summer, I kind of reached my breaking point. I was stressed out, anxious, and felt exhausted all of the time. While my health was improving in a lot of ways, I was constantly fatigued and didn’t have the energy that a normal 27-year-old should have. I was taking vitamins and supplements, doing yoga, and even tried acupuncture. Nothing was helping.
I had recently started a new job a few months earlier but the job wasn’t what I expected it to be and I took it for all of the wrong reasons. I didn’t feel like myself and I felt like I was suffocating more and more every day. Years of keeping your thoughts and feelings bottled up inside will do that to a person. When I finally realized that I was miserable and couldn’t stand one more day at the job, I quit. It was liberating. Since then, I’ve been spending the summer working on my physical, mental, and emotional health. A few weeks ago, I finally decided to see a therapist.
As an introvert, I’m almost always thinking of different excuses to get me out of certain situations. Before my first therapy appointment arrived, I had already decided to cancel my appointment at least five times before I finally forced myself to go.
For me, the worst part of seeing this particular therapist is knowing she is a cancer psychologist, meaning she specializes in people who have been affected by cancer or a serious medical condition. About 85 percent of her patients have a medical condition. Because of this, her office is located in the same cancer clinic and on the same floor of the same building as my oncologist. As if going in for my cancer follow-ups every three months isn’t bad enough, now I was willingly going here to talk about cancer. Plus, all I could think about was how much it was going to cost me.
Every time I walk into the cancer center, I feel so out of place. I feel like a total outcast. Here I am, 28-years-old, healthy-looking, young, and in a cancer center. I’m surrounded by people double or triple my age, and people are giving me weird looks. Sure, maybe they’re just wondering what I’m doing there. Surely they assume I’m there for someone else. Why else would a healthy-looking blonde girl be sitting in the waiting room? That’s until they hear my name being called or they see a nurse take me back. Then they probably start to connect the dots.
But still, it makes me uncomfortable. When we see older people at the cancer center, we don’t really give it much thought. Nobody should be there, regardless of their age, but why do I need to stand out?
A new chapter
I had my second therapy appointment this morning and I already feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. To not be judged is one of the most liberating things. In my life, I constantly feel as if I’m being judged. I’m being judged for my vegan diet and lifestyle, my decision to devote my life to rescuing homeless rabbits, my decision to quit my job to pursue my passion for writing, or even for being introverted and being a homebody. I feel like it’s impossible to make everyone else happy AND myself.
As a lifelong people pleaser, this has been difficult for me. I’m learning to put myself first, even though it’s difficult at times. I know that this is the first step to wellness. Put me first, and the people who matter will still be there, waiting for their turn. My goal for therapy is to learn how to let go of the things that I can’t control, including other people’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions. If they don’t like who I am or what I’m doing with my life, then who really cares? Well me, of course. But hopefully not for long.
What I learned today
While my therapy is still in the introductory phase, the thing that really stood out to me today during therapy was hearing my therapist talk about the other women she sees who have gynecological cancers. She explained that with these types of cancers, women often look good and healthy on the outside, so people tend to assume that all is fine and dandy. Because they look good on the outside, they must feel great too. Cancer must not be an issue anymore. Just like magic, cancer and all of its physical and psychological symptoms go poof.
This really hit home for me because I feel the same way. Sure, I look like a normal 28-year-old, but I don’t feel the best or have the energy that a normal human being my age should have. I’m still fatigued and get stomach pains from the scar tissue in my abdomen, among other strange symptoms. Plus, the stress/anxiety/worry of the tumor returning leave me with a constant gnawing feeling in my gut.
A constant battle
My doctor tells me to be aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer recurrence and repeats the symptoms at each visit, but I already know the signs and symptoms like the palm of my own hand. I look at my stomach in the mirror every day just to make sure that I don’t look bloated or pregnant (which could be the sign of a new tumor). I monitor my weight constantly because I’m terrified of letting a few pounds creep up on me like they did last year (another sign of a tumor). This time, I’m going to be prepared if anything happens. No symptom is getting past me unnoticed.
All of the red flags that I struggled with a year ago continue to dance around in my mind. I know things are fine right now because I’m being monitored, but I’m still scared. I know that cancer crept up on me once before and I have no idea what caused it, so I’m worried that it could happen again.
I hope that my experience helps to teach others that cancer isn’t as black and white as it may seem.