Three little words
“It’s lung cancer”. We we were a couple of years into our marriage with our sleeping baby son at home the day that we confronted death.
Three years later, “we” were no longer, and “I” was a 27 year old widow raising a stunned four year old. Along with the widow tag I received other unwelcome visitors: depression, terror, fear of the future, and awful, unwanted flashbacks to gruesome images of his death. I feared I was losing my mind.
PTSD is chameleon-like and can stealthily disguise itself as other things; depression, alcoholism, anxiety, insomnia, to name a few. The slow burn of my trauma took hold at the point of hubby’s diagnosis, and I now realise he too was traumatised, but, like me, could not speak of it. Sadly, we are not alone in being handed a cancer bombshell, it is estimated that 2.5 million people in the UK are living with cancer (Macmillan, 2017).
Fast forward sixteen years and I have earned a more welcome tag: Trauma Psychotherapist. In awe of human resilience, throughout these years I have studied PTSD and counselled cancer survivors and their loved ones, to help re-build shattered lives. I’m sharing what we have learned.
Living with cancer: Three signs of trauma: How our bodies and brains react
Understanding what is happening is key to trauma recovery. There are three main symptoms of PTSD: Being constantly alert to perceived threat, avoidance of reminders related to the original traumatic event (often the cancer diagnosis, and key points in treatment, including places such as hospitals) and ‘flashbacks’; spontaneous and uninvited re-living of the traumatic events. But why do we get these symptoms?
When something threatening happens, the brain switches to survival mode, and is unable to process all the ‘data’ it receives. This data can become ‘stuck’, in our nervous system which interferes with memory formation. If this is a single experience (like scaring off an intruder) then once we relax and are in a safe place, we can process this information and the memories are less likely to become problematic.
However, with a cancer diagnosis, (yours or a loved ones), your brain can remain in a constant state of threat, and, conversely this can be particularly heightened once active cancer treatment has finished. “Is it going to come back?”, “I’ve stopped fighting it”, “How will they find it?”. This keeps your nervous system in a constant state of “fight or flight”, not allowing your brain to process the information that the immediate threat has passed. I’m sure any cancer survivor (and their loved ones) would agree that a true sense of safety never fully returns, and this can be the cause of the ongoing traumatised state.
Not everyone who has experienced cancer will be traumatised, but it’s helpful to remember that this type of trauma can be a slow-burner. These steps are techniques that have helped many and are offered as guidance, but if you think you may be suffering from PTSD, I strongly advise that you seek help from a trained professional.
Calming cancer trauma: Three ways
- Tell yourself a story - your story. One of the reasons trauma memories become ‘stuck’ is that we can’t bear to think about what has happened and so push our memories away. Writing the story of your cancer journey can help you to take control of your memories. You don’t need to focus on the worst or most traumatic part, I often encourage my clients to start with “what I have learned about surviving cancer so far”. Other ways are by creating collages or artwork, sculpts or making recordings. As the memories start to flow, this can help to lessen the ‘flashbacks’ as the brain knows it is doing it’s job of processing the raw data. I have witnessed many people people discover heroic aspects of themselves as part of allowing their memories to flow.
- Be in your body - now. A real difficulty is feeling let down by, or under threat from your own body. To develop acceptance, I teach deep, diaphragmatic breathing and use guided imagery to evoke the calming parasympathetic nervous system. Between sessions, I encourage clients to calmly and gently re-engage with their bodies, touching, stroking, looking at and moving body parts that are pain and symptom free and then working to accept parts of their bodies that have changed.
- Visualise your valued future. This is often the hardest part. Many people who are living with the impact of cancer describe not being able to look to the future. Suddenly, all that was taken for granted is now gone. I gently encourage clients to explore their fears, which are perfectly natural, yet equally to value what matters. Why was it so important to survive? What do you want to be different (if anything) in life? I encourage clients to look to their immediate future, make plans, take risks and most of all to understand that right now, in this moment, you have survived something you would never have dared to face. And that is truly remarkable.
Macmillan Cancer Support. Statistics Fact Sheet. 2017. Retrieved from macmillan.org.uk, 20.11.2017.