“I can't believe the news today. Oh, I can't close my eyes and make it go away. How long...how long must we sing this song? How long, how long...”
-U2 “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a term most often associated with soldiers coming back from battle but battles don’t just happen in foreign lands, deserts, and jungles. Sometimes battles happen right in the middle of your life. Sometimes, they happen every three weeks at a doctor’s office. Sometimes, long after you think you’ve won the war – you get signed up for another tour of duty - and when that happens, you go into battle mode. You fight and you fight hard. You take no prisoners and you take care of others…but you may, as I did, forget to take care of yourself. I refer to my PTSD as the Kraken. The Cancer Kraken.
As a five-year survivor, I was finally getting to the point where my cancer journey was behind me. As I was in the thick of promoting my book and the importance of early detection, the day-to-day worry of cancer was finally beginning to fade. Looking at my body and my scars in the mirror everyday was a constant reminder of what I had been through, but usually after a quick glance I was over it and on to the next task of the morning. Getting dressed, putting on make-up, blowing out my hair, choosing shoes, etc. The Kraken was safely tucked away... quiet as a mouse. Unseen and unheard from.
But then, I was diagnosed again and I went into hyperdrive. Scheduling my medical leave, planning my surgery, and treatment schedule. Within two weeks of the diagnosis I modeled in a survivor fashion show, walked a 5K for the American Cancer Society in Point Pleasant, cut off all my hair in anticipation of not being able to lift my arms after my bilateral mastectomy but also to help me not be so fixated on my eventual hair loss. Oh, and then a hurricane of epic proportions slammed my state and we had to move out of our house for a week.
After my fourteen hour surgery, I spent a full week in the hospital and once I was finally home, I was confined to a medical recliner for several weeks. My few lucid moments, in between sleeping and taking painkillers, were spent writing mildly incoherent thank-you’s for all the meals, flowers and gift baskets that were delivered to both the hospital and our home. Creeping up on me was not just my first round of chemo but also the holidays. I became obsessed with timing and logistics. Was even possible for me to attend Thanksgiving at my mom’s house? Would my chemo be done far enough in advance so I could at least enjoy Christmas Eve dinner? I began lamenting over the fact that I did not have the energy to send out Christmas cards, bake cookies, or shop. From my perch I instructed my teenage sons and my husband on Christmas decorating 101, cooking Christmas dinner, and gift wrapping. I toasted the New Year and then I went back to work.
And it was at that point, sometime in January, when I realized something was very wrong. I was in a constant state of agitation. My hair was falling out, (oh wait...never mind), I was nervous. I was jittery. I was frequently short of breath. I was achy from head to toe. I was dizzy more often than I would ever openly admit. I only felt safe at home in my bed or in my doctor’s office. The office made me jumpy. Driving made me tense. I couldn’t stand being inside a store. I never slept, even while taking sleeping pills. I stayed up all night worrying about my kids, their future, my future, my last wishes…and embarrassingly enough, my funeral. I say embarrassing because in no way shape or form did anyone ever tell me to get my affairs in order. Not one doctor led me to believe that I would not make it through treatment and get on with my life.
At a routine appointment with my oncologist his nurse asked me how I was feeling. And that’s when I began to hyperventilate. I began to sob and was shaking uncontrollably. I was pale and clammy and the room began to spin. I was in bad shape. Everything that I had been holding in for three months became unleashed. The Cancer Kraken had broken loose and was holding me captive.
My nurse was wonderful…and patient. She immediately suspected what was going on. A psychologist was called in and sat with me while I blathered on and on about my fears, my nerves, my symptoms, my extreme sleep deprivation. She listed thoughtfully and just let me get it all out. I have no idea how long I was in that exam room. It could have been five minutes…it could have been five hours. No matter. In that time period, briefly, I became unburdened, like I had just dipped a toe into the sunlight surrounding the shadow I had been living under. It was a while before she spoke but when she did she mentioned mild PTSD. She said that I had been running an emotional marathon for months. She asked if I ever stopped to think about what I was feeling. She asked if I had even taken time to process my feelings regarding the diagnosis or treatment. Had I taken the time to seek out a support group or a therapist? Of course not, I just jumped in and never looked back. I did all that touchy-feely stuff the first time. I didn’t need it again. I worried about everyone BUT myself. I’m strong like bull. I could take it. Well, no…I guess not. At some point I should have been a little selfish. Held myself a nice pity party complete with strong cocktails, dark chocolate, good friends and released the Kraken in a controlled environment. So medications were prescribed, therapists were suggested, and I began to feel normal (well normal for me…) again. I got help, I put myself first, I breathed deep and slow and finally, I slept.
I still have an occasional panic attack, usually triggered by a test or some weird random pain, but I now have better coping tools. I’ve stopped covering up my feelings. I listen to music, I talk, I write, I blog, I rant, I let it be known when all is not right in my little world and the Cancer Kraken is now safely bound and gagged in a red room of pain. I do not visit. I do not make eye contact. I’m too damn busy taking back my life.