Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Day Two...

This morning after I woke up in a pool of sweat, I wrote a poem in my head:

Day two
Feel like poo

It was all the literary brilliance I had in me. It had been a restless night of feeling really hot and really cold and rustling through the cabinet at four in the morning to find anything that would make my sore throat feel better (everything I found was long expired). 

I missed work yesterday because I felt so crappy and then I laid around so much of the day that I was sore and grumpy.  

When I woke up this morning, I thought I would feel better but I felt worse. I was frustrated and exhausted at the thought of so much as making Annabel's lunch. And I was scared. Annoyingly scared. 

I know that it's just a nasty cold. I'm sure that I need to rest and it will pass. But it's times like this that I am reminded of how traumatizing it can be to learn that your body has betrayed you. That an Intruder set up camp in the basement.  

I do not need or want or deserve sympathy of any sort. I am not writing this post in search of any, "Feel better soon," comments. I am writing because I feel better when I write. I publish that writing because I think there are people who will feel better knowing that someone else feels the same way that they do. 

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Several times in the last few months, I have heard PTSD and cancer mentioned in the same sentence. I always brushed it off, believing that PTSD was reserved for people who have been through war, rape, a terrorist attack, or something really awful like that. I have met several people who have been through such trauma. They have been and still are clients (and friends) about whom I care deeply. I have seen these people cry and shake and become speechless while remembering their traumatic experiences. It is tragic beyond words, and I hold it together only because I have a job to do for them and I want to do it. 

I have done some research on PTSD related to helping these clients. But I never researched PTSD as it relates to cancer patients. Until this morning. 

This morning, out of sheer curiosity, I Googled, "PTSD and cancer." (I think this was my first Google about cancer ever!) There were pages and pages of results, the first one being from an ASCO webpage. Since I remembered Dr. Bunnell talking about the ASCO conference he attends every year, I figured it was legit. (I have since learned that ASCO stands for American Society of Clinical Oncologists.) 

I spent only five minutes reading the ASCO page and a few other results so by no means do I claim to be an expert on the subject. Nevertheless, I learned some interesting things in those five minutes including the following (which are quoted from the ASCO page linked above):
  • PTSD is an anxiety disorder that a person may develop after experiencing an extremely frightening or life-threatening situation. Although PTSD is most often associated with traumatic events such as war, sexual and physical attacks, natural disasters, and serious accidents, the disorder can also affect people with a history of cancer.
  • A recent study found that nearly one in four women who were newly diagnosed with breast cancer experienced PTSD. (See HERE for more.)
  • PTSD symptoms are different for each person and can come and go. Although these symptoms usually develop within three months of a traumatic event, they can occur several months or even years later.
  • PTSD can also affect caregivers. Learning that a loved one has cancer, seeing a loved one in pain, and experiencing a medical emergency are traumatic events that may contribute to the development of PTSD symptoms during treatment or years after the person has survived the cancer. One study found that nearly 20% of families with adolescent survivors of childhood cancer had at least one parent who was experiencing PTSD. 
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This is not a post claiming that I have PSTD related to my cancer (PTSD related to caring for my two children yesterday while Brian was at practice, well, that's a different story). Seriously though, I sometimes experience symptoms listed on that ASCO page but most people probably do, at least, to some degree, and I think my degree is relatively small. Plus I dealt with nightmares, fear, anxiety, and guilt long before cancer and they never really hindered me. Sure, for the past two years those things have been focused on cancer but if they weren't focused on cancer they would be focused on something else (terrorism was my fear-of-choice since 9/11 and drunk drivers also have terrified me since an accident that hit close to home). So I have consciously thought about it for the first time and I don't think I have PTSD. 

Nevertheless, one year, two months, and 22 days since my last infusion, I still get scared. I get scared because I love my life. And because experience has shown me that in a split second, everything can change. 

I am blessed with many of the factors that make a person less likely to develop PTSD, including a strong support system, great health care, and my trusty outlet (this blog). And I completely understand why cancer patients and caregivers, particularly those facing metastatic disease, could experience PTSD. I also would guess that there are lots of cancer "survivors" like me who likely do not have any diagnosable form of PTSD but who still experience post-traumatic stress. Perhaps a good first step is recognizing what triggers that stress. For me, it is worst when I don't feel well. 

Because when I don't feel well, even when it's just a stupid cold, I am haunted by tragic stories. Stories of people who arrived at the hospital not feeling well and, due to cancer, died soon after. Stories of aggressive cancers that yielded to nothing. These stories would have scared me before August 8, 2012, but after it, they are able to truly torture me. Because for scattered moments throughout a day of lying around feeling sick and sore, those stories can make a simple winter illness feel like the beginning of the end. 

I know it's silly. That I'm being dramatic. That I will feel better tomorrow. But I also can't seem to forget that at 32 years old, for reason(s) unknown, an aggressive and deadly cancer grew inside me. That shocking news, and the treatment that ensued, changed me. They made me realize, on a deep and sincere level, that I am vulnerable. Not in the sort of way that makes me observe trauma from a distance. But in the sort of way makes me feel it inside. As clear as a sore throat or an ear ache. Or a lump in my breast. 

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