Though many long-term cancer survivors seem to have "gotten over it," the truth is that while memories may fade with time, deep inside the trauma never totally goes away.
Depending on the intensity of their battles with the disease, survivors can suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — even, in my case, 11 years after the initial diagnosis. Although it is more commonly associated with war veterans or victims of physical assault, the condition can be triggered by any terrifying event, and cancer certainly qualifies.
PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four categories: intrusive memories (including nightmares), avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in emotional reactions.
If these symptoms are severe and if they keep you from getting on with your life, it’s time to seek professional help. But even those that are not severe deserve some kind of attention.
I thought about this subject recently when, within a couple of weeks, I had two nightmares: one triggered by the death of a friend from a relapse of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) — the same cancer I had — and the other brought on by a magazine article about an experimental treatment for AML.
One night, I dreamt that I had relapsed. I said to my doctor, “How can this be, I am more than five years out?"
He explained that such things can happen, but that it could most likely be treated. I would need a chemotherapy shot in my arm and even in my hand every half hour — a subconscious reproduction of the surgeries I’ve had in those same spots to remove squamous cell cancers.
As for the magazine article, the author had written of AML that “it is usually lethal; fewer than a quarter of patients survive for more than five years.”
Of course I know this, but seeing it in print made it jump out at me — just like the reaction you might have when hearing about someone, even a stranger, who died of “your” cancer.
PTSD causes the brain to scramble information. The night I read the article, I dreamt that I had 60 days to live.
The next morning, I stood at my kitchen sink while the coffee was brewing and took a good long look at objects I have placed on the windowsill: smooth stones balanced in a pile, shells in a dish, and cuttings from a plant in a blue pottery vase. These things remind me that I am awake, and alive. Anything that can bring you back to reality is a good thing.
It also helps to surround yourself with supportive people and talk to them about your feelings. One friend said, “Keep telling yourself: ‘It’s only a dream.’”
That was a reminder I needed to hear.
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