This short blog is a primer to my three-part series of essays about posttraumatic stress after cancer, what it felt like to experience, coping and overcoming, and all that I've done to manage life after. For so much more about posttraumatic stress after cancer, please visit my PTSD After Cancer landing page.
I arrived at work on a seemingly ordinary day on Thursday, May 21st, but found myself unable to think or concentrate at all. I felt a lot of nervous energy and anxiety building, but didn't know why. I had also started having cancer-related nightmares in the previous week, as if to predict something rotten coming. It turned out that this particular day was my last two days of chemotherapy, four years ago, and I remember those days all too well. I was so afraid that the chemo wasn't going to work, wondering if I was still going to die or not, and I was tired of being poisoned almost to death and feeling like complete hell. The only thing that stopped me from ripping off my lines and running away were an extra few doses of Ativan, and its induced haze and false calm. All of these fears and emotions had been buried, but here they were, suddenly coming to the surface four years later. I was right back in that oncology infusion room again as if it were happening now, and I was absolutely terrified. I went to a quiet and secluded corner at my office where nobody was likely to find me, and there I sat with hands trembling and my head between my knees as the tears started falling.
People say to just not think about these things, but they don't realize that I'm not thinking about them, consciously at least. It's from our sub-conscious. It's thinking about it, and causing us to re-experience these memories as if they were happening on that very day. The same powerful emotions of extreme fear, that fight-or-flight adrenaline, and the instinct to run away, right now, came out. I've stopped telling myself that it's wrong for me to have such episodes or that I shouldn't be feeling this way, even four years out. Never deny your own feelings. Love yourself, and accept what you feel not as right or wrong, but as uniquely you. This is me, this is my pain and my long repressed emotions, which for whatever reason decided to come out on that day, and not another, or never at all.
It was a rainy day, but I knew what I had to do, and that I needed the very best outlet that I've had through my survivorship. I went running in the rain for the very first time over my lunch hour that day, and loved it! All I did the first mile was cry, but I was flying. All of the long repressed pain, fear, and anxiety from this time came pouring out, and my sub-conscious finally got to do what it wanted to do the whole time and just run away from it all. Just as nature was cleansing itself, so was I. A sense of inner peace and calm finally found its way back to me after the first mile, and from there I just cruised. According to my running watch, I even set a new personal best 5K time by a few seconds at 29:41, only my second ever 5K run below 30 minutes. Somewhere along the line however, my running watch lost some distance, which caused me to have to run nearly two extra blocks than normal. My actual 5K time was probably more like 29:20, or as good as 29-flat, shattering my previous best! It was an instant mood lifter, but it mattered not.
What matters the most, and what's most important as a cancer survivor whether you're experiencing PTS or not, is simply knowing how to take care of yourself, and having all of the healthy and productive outlets that you need. Everything that I needed to happen on that run, happened in that first mile. The rest was just icing on the cake. When PTS first started hitting me hard at the beginning of 2013, I was blindsided. I had no idea of how to truly take care of myself, and suffered terribly for months until I figured it out. Rather than suffering for days if not weeks from a single episode of PTS as I had in the past, I went right back to work that afternoon feeling refreshed, calm, and at peace, and managed to have a productive day. Cancer survivorship has brought me many dark and stormy days like this one. Healthy and productive outlets such as running, writing, other forms of exercise, art in the form of photography, along with plenty of good times with family and friends have always seen me through these stormy days. Beyond every post-traumatic stress storm, there is light. The right outlets and the right people in your life, is what will see you through these dark times.