There comes a point in most cancer patient’s experience when they realize that they are having death anxiety. For some, the fear is so strong that this comes like a full speed train into the psyche. For others, the fear is more underground and therefore either creeps up on us or jumps out of that closet.

And while it is a natural response to facing a life threatening condition, admitting it often comes out like a confession. A part of this is because death is such a taboo subject, a part of it is because of survivor guilt (click here to read more on that), and then of course the ever present messages to stay strong and positive- an important ally but not maintainable in an exclusive way.

Yet what really gets this process going is the one and only PTSD, or trauma symptoms, that come with being diagnosed with cancer. Today’s post is going to look at why.

PTSD is a term that is quite well known, but not often understood unless the reference is to combat soldiers.  I think many of us can appreciate why an active duty soldier might have PTSD, and in fact it was the impact of WWII on veterans that lead to the creation of PTSD as a diagnosis.

In a nutshell, PTSD is caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event or a life threatening situation followed by the feeling of being unable to control what is happening.

The severity of the PTSD that one experiences is often influenced by the duration of the experience, the frequency of exposure to other traumatic or life threatening situations, the intensity of our emotions, our previous history, and the quality of our support system.

That being said, what most people actually experience with PTSD are the ramifications of what it means to have PTSD.  In other words, the initiating event is certainly important to process, but it is our reactions to it that we generally notice more, and that typically have us feeling “crazy”.

Here are some of the challenges that PTSD creates:

  • Triggers– those instant reminders of what we have been through, often set off by one of our senses (smell, touch, hearing, seeing, and tasting) that at minimum cause us to remember what happened and for some bring about flashbacks that make us feel as if the traumatic event was recurring
  • Hypervigalance– feeling hyper aware of our surroundings, attempting to never be taken off guard again.  For cancer survivors, this often manifests through the body- responding to common aches and pains with the fear that the cancer is back.  This is so normal, especially since we are asked to check in with persistent pains, etc., but the impact it can have on our psyche can be devastating if we do not have a way to cope with it.
  • Recurrent and intrusive recollections of what happened– this can happen when we are awake and when we are sleeping, in the form of images, thoughts, feelings or perceptions.  It is one of the areas that offer an entrance to healing, because it is information that we are trying to process.  This is one of the areas in which art is profoundly helpful.
  • Avoidance– the attempt to manage the intensity and frequency of our re-experiencing by trying to avoid anything that could trigger a recollection of what we have been through.  Some of these things are really obvious, such as follow up visits with the oncologists, but because our brain can attach meaning to things that were not truly a part of our experience, this can be really futile.  A quick example that comes to mind is someone who had an aversion to a particular color that she associated with the color of the exam room when she was told that she had cancer.
  • Emotional impact– this is a broad category, I like to think of the emotional side effects as our warning system that something is wrong.  Here are the most common responses: anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, poor concentration (a bit hard to decipher when you have had anesthesia or chemo brain).

My hope is that by understanding what PTSD is, it can create a deeper sense of empathy for yourself and what you have been through and an understanding of why it is something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.  The longer we linger with PTSD and its side effects, the more impactful they become.

PTSD can often rear its head unexpectedly, which is why I created the DIY art therapy sessions, to offer you a tool that can be used at any time, in any location, to give you something to help ride through the storm.  The DIY sessions will enhance the work you are doing on your own, in therapy, or in support groups.

Today we are anticipating a blizzard here in the northeast of the U.S., which seems like an apt metaphor for the experience of PTSD.  The only way through it is to gather your provisions and hunker down, grounding yourself to a safe spot until it all passes.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.