PTSD will hollow you out inside. After these fires had raged inside of me for six solid weeks, there was nothing left of me but smoldering piles of rubble. My mind was scattered into a million pieces on the ground, and I hadn't a clue on what was supposed to go where, nor what the final picture was even supposed to look like. I was just gutted. As much as my life changed after being diagnosed with cancer, it changed just as much if not more after I started suffering from posttraumatic stress in the years after cancer.
In Part 1 of these essays, I described what posttraumatic stress felt like to experience, and in Part II, I described the various things that I did to cope with and recover from it. In this final essay, I'm sharing the things that I've done to manage my life after suffering from posttraumatic stress after cancer.
1. POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS IS NOT WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU, IT'S WHAT'S RIGHT
If your home burned to the ground and you lost everything, and only narrowly escaped with your life, you can't tell me that the smell of smoke or the sound of a fire engine coming down the road wouldn't make you cringe, and possibly want to run out the door. This is a normal, healthy reaction to traumatic events in our lives. Human beings haven't evolved over billions of yeas to our position of dominance on our planet because we have poor instincts. We actually have extremely powerful instincts, and posttraumatic stress represents our protective instincts kicking in, trying to remove us from harm and situations that are perceived as threatening. You should never feel ashamed if something or someone that reminds you of a traumatic event, makes you feel afraid months or even years after the traumatic experience. It matters not weather it was a house fire, a plane crash, a war, or fighting cancer; when we experience things that remind us of our past traumatic experiences, it's the same protective instincts that kick in, trying to remove us from perceived harm.
If something or someone reminds you of a traumatic experience, you're supposed to be afraid, you're supposed to want to run away, or hide, or fight back. Posttraumatic stress isn't what's wrong with you, it's what's right! It's a sign that all is well, and that your mind is working exactly as it should be!
2. POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS IS NOT "PTSD"
There's a huge problem with perception out in the world with how posttraumatic stress is perceived. Posttraumatic stress after a traumatic event, such as fighting cancer, is very normal. Such episodes might last anywhere from an hour to a few days, or maybe a week. Full blown posttraumatic stress disorder is when you have all of the symptoms of posttraumatic stress for extended periods of time, several weeks or more, and that never seem to let up even after being removed from the stimulus that had triggered the posttraumatic stress episode. This is a very serious situation that requires professional help or treatment, but because any sort of posttraumatic stress is generically only referred to at "PTSD", too many people feel like there's something wrong with them when there isn't, and might be more reluctant to seek the help and support that they need. Rest assured that feelings of posttraumatic stress after cancer are very normal to experience, and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. These are our self-protective instincts coming to the surface, trying to remove ourselves from situations that have been perceived as being threatening.
3. ACCEPT WHAT YOU'RE FEELING
The extreme feelings of fear and anxiety that posttraumatic stress can cause us to experience come from our sub-conscious, and thus we have no conscious control over such feelings. We can't just tell ourselves to not be afraid. All we can control is how we consciously react to these sub-conscious feelings and instincts that come to the surface. We can beat ourselves up, and berate ourselves for being afraid when we feel like we shouldn't be, but this is denying ourselves. We're hurting inside, and beating ourselves up just makes things even worse. A far better approach is to simply accept what we're feeling, without criticism or judgment. Instead of criticizing yourself for being afraid, simply accept that you're afraid, and try to find healthy and productive outlets to channel those feelings into. Write about how you feel, or dump this energy into an exercise routine, for example.
4. STAY CLOSE TO YOUR COPING ROUTINES
As suddenly as the posttraumatic stress mechanism in our minds can be switched off, it can also switch back on again. Thus, it’s very important to stay close to whatever routines you’ve developed to help manage your posttraumatic stress. I took to running as a form of therapy to help manage mine, and I always made sure that my running shoes and clothes were prepped and ready to go so that there wouldn’t be any delays, should I suddenly need to go for a run. If I’d come home from lunch dealing with PTS issues in my mind and didn’t have my running gear ready to go, that’s 30 minutes wasted trying to track everything down with that terrible, panicking, freewheeling energy burning me up inside. It’s best to have ready-to-go “turn key” coping methods at your disposal that you don’t even have to think about, whenever the need arises. Stay close to your coping routines.
5. STAY CLOSE TO PEOPLE THAT BRING YOU COMFORT
As important as it is to stay close to whatever routines you’ve developed to help you cope with your posttraumatic stress, it’s important to stay close to the friends and people that help you to cope as well. Most people in my life genuinely cared about me, but just didn’t know quite what to do for me, or how to support me. Posttraumatic stress was just as foreign for them as it was for me, and some tended to shy away simply because they didn't want to cause any harm. There was a highly select group of people that just “got me” in some way, as though there were a very deep soulful connection in play that just engaged naturally when I needed it to. With or without having ever experienced anything that I had or not, these friends of mine have always known what to say and do, and not once have they ever run afoul of me or done anything that’s come even close to upsetting me in the years that I've now known them. These are the people that I needed to spend my time with, because they helped me feel normal and at ease, and gave me a break from this terrible hurricane in my mind. To have friends and people in my life that could help me forget all that I was in the midst of during such a terrible storm, was an unbelievably great gift and blessing to have. These select friends of mine know who they are today, and it’s a very deep and soulful love that I have for them.
6. NEVER STOP LIVING AND ENJOYING LIFE
Don’t ever let posttraumatic stress keep you down, and stop you from enjoying life. As I wrote in PTSD Part II, I pushed hard against the boundaries that posttraumatic stress was trying to keep me within, and made sure to get out with friends that I felt fully comfortable around. This is why it’s so important to have or find friends that really get you, even if you don’t understand how or why. Go with what feels right, even if you don't understand. These friends of mine helped to rescue me from the inner turmoil in my mind, and allowed me to keep busy, keep active, and keep enjoying life even during these times of great distress. The best way to survive cancer, is to LIVE!
7. Find little things to enjoy everyday.
When I was suffering from posttraumatic stress, I felt like an endangered species and like my life was being threatened everyday. As those of us that have experienced this have felt, posttraumatic stress can feel like you're walking around with a loaded gun pointed at your head constantly. You feel like a marked man, and the level of stress I felt from this were unlike anything I had ever experienced in life, even while fighting cancer! Weekend activities with family and friends, and vacation planning wasn't enough. I needed to find little things that I could enjoy everyday, and that gave me some sense of comfort and happiness. You have to eat everyday, so why not eat well? Treat yourself daily. I’ve become a well-known foodie to friends, and post all sorts of food pictures over social media and especially Instagram, when I had almost never done so before. I tried to pinpoint the time that I really got into food and became a foodie, only to realize that this was borne out of my posttraumaitc stress, and my desire to find things that I could enjoy in life everyday, no matter how small. A nice "last meal" everyday, because at the time, I felt like it could be.
8. THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-LOVE
For years, I lectured myself and beat myself up for being afraid, when logically I knew that there was no reason to be. I had a highly curable Stage II cancer. I went through a chemotherapy protocol that was a virtual guarantee of being cured, and then did the retroperitoneal lymph node dissection surgery on top of that for good measure. If there was even one stupid little sub-detectable cancer cell floating around my body after four rounds of chemotherapy, I just wanted it gone. I know what the stats are; I’ve read the medical literature. Almost no one whose had a Stage II testicular cancer that does both primary chemotherapy and the RPLND surgery ever experiences a recurrence, yet I was still so afraid and terrified. Allow yourself to be. Don't fight yourself! Love yourself by accepting what you feel, without judgement or criticism. Beating yourself up for what you feel just compounds the pain and makes things worse, and your sub-conscious will never let go of what it feels. Stop denying it. Love yourself, forgive yourself, accept your feelings, and work with them rather than against them. Be your own best friend.
9. FIND SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN
My lack of firm spiritual beliefs ended up being another source of pain and difficulty for me in the aftermath of my cancer, and especially while dealing with posttraumatic stress. What makes the aftermath of cancer so terrifying? It’s because we fear our cancers will return, and that we’ll die. Firming up my spiritual beliefs helped to take the wind out of the sails of my fears of death, which in turn helped me to stop being afraid. We live in a society today that seemingly shuns religion and spiritual beliefs, and looks upon them with contempt. Yet, it’s my own independent spiritual beliefs that I fully developed and embraced that helped me to overcome my posttraumatic stress issues, and fears of dying of cancer. In the crazy world we live in today where mental health is at the forefront, why are we shunning and vilifying things such as religions and spiritual beliefs that can help us feel more at peace, and understanding of our place in the world? I feel that this is a huge mistake. If you’re suffering from anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress, but don’t have firm spiritual beliefs, reconsider why you don't, and that the lack of such beliefs might actually be contributing to the very anxiety that you're suffering from. This was the case with me.
10. TIME DOES HEAL
I've been asked, and I don’t think you can ever completely heal or cure yourself from posttraumatic stress, but it does get easier with time. Once you’ve been through a traumatic event or two in your life, and associations are made that trigger these fiercely protective self-preserving instincts, it can be difficult if not impossible to break them. That said, I have broken some associations, with extreme difficulty, but to this day I don’t think I could casually walk back to the infusion lab of my oncologist’s office to say hi to some of the wonderful nurses that I know back there, without breaking out into a nervous sweat, or my heart rate jumping through the roof. The mere thought of it sends shivers down my body, and that’s still posttraumatic stress in the background. I'd have to do something to break that association, but I can’t un-experience all of the hell that I’ve been through fighting cancer, such that the associations were never made in the first place.
As time has gone on, the posttraumatic stress reactions have become much less intense, my sub-conscious has seemingly become a bit more trusting of my conscious ability to keep myself out of danger, and plenty of positive memories made in the passing years has helped to write over the painful memories of the past. Another thing I had feared? Never really getting to live and enjoy my life. I've done that and then some in the past few years, and this has brought me a great sense of peace and comfort as well.
The best you can do is love yourself, care for yourself, forgive yourself, be your own best friend, and cope as best you possibly can. Finding the help that you need, the friends that know how to support you and make you feel right, hobbies and activities that serve as effective outlets, and that keep you present and engaged as much as possible, are all a part of the "cure" for posttraumatic stress. There's a reason why the center photo below appears on my homepage, as it represents all of the above in one photo. An enjoyable activity with my family, and with friends that just get me and that have always made me feel right.
When I first started suffering from posttraumatic stress in my years after cancer, I scoured the Internet, but couldn’t find even a single real-life accounting and example of an actual cancer survivor experiencing posttraumatic stress. I had no idea if this was something that others had experienced or not, what it even felt like, nor how anyone might have managed to find their way through it. All I ever found were dry, clinical sounding pages that merely listed the symptoms. I never felt more alone in my life, not knowing what to do, nor if there were even anyone else out there who had experienced what I had. I think after experiencing posttrauamtic stress, that most people just don’t want to think about it again after they get through it in whatever way they manage, or don’t even know how to begin describing what they had felt inside. This leaves a great knowledge gap and void, and it's one that I wanted to fill with this writing. The world now has a first-hand accounting of a cancer survivor that suffered from post-traumatic stress, what it felt like, what it took to pull themselves through, and all that's been done to manage life in the aftermath.
Many tears and bottles of wine went into the making of these essays. It took me two years after I had started experiencing posttraumatic stress to even begin writing them at all, and over a year of writing in bits and pieces to get these series of essays together, because small bits at a time was the most I could handle. I’m currently five years out from cancer as I write this, and three years out from the point that I started suffering from posttrauamtic stress, and I finally feel completely at peace and at ease with everything. It’s my hope that these essays find their way to those that are suffering and in need of perspective, and that the sharing of my experiences helps others to find their way through this and heal, as I have.