The burden of cancer might not ever go away, but you can turn it into a force for good in your life and your world. I live the rich, full, and complete life that I do because of the burden of cancer that drives me. I would not have my life any other way today.
One day I was reading my friend's website, and my jaw hit the floor when I read a post about grief. It was the first time I'd ever seen a "grief chart." I had no idea there even was such a thing, and I could easily identify myself at every single step of this big curve as a cancer survivor. I had been writing and sharing in my cancer journey for a few years at this point, and it had never occurred to me even once that this entire process and all that I was going through, was all really one massive grief curve.
I happen to be a good baseline for what post-cancer depression can feel like, because there had never been even a single depressive ‘bone’ in my body prior to cancer. I was always upbeat and optimistic about everything, believed that there were solutions to every problem, and did not have pre-existing issues with depression or anxiety. My cancer diagnosis at the age of 33 is the first time I faced any mental health issues in my life at all, and they hit me like a load of bricks.
As I approach six years of cancer survivorship, never has it been more clear to me that cancer is not just a disease of our physical bodies, but a disease of our minds and souls as well. Thus, the argument that many make, is that cancer is not just a matter of eradicating the rogue cells from one's body, but of curing the entire patient.
Writing about cancer and all of this inner pain that it had brought into my life has never been easy, but the rewards for doing so have always far outweighed the hardship. It's one of the hardest, but also simultaneously one of the best things I've ever done.
This morning, my wife asked me if during my darkest days of PTSD, I ever had thoughts of killing my entire family. No. Never. There's a terrible story in the news, one of those murder/suicide "family delete" type tragedies, where a woman had been suffering from PTSD and possibly other things, stemming from a health crisis in one of her young children.
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 posttrauamtic stress after cancer.
The passage of time without any new evidence of disease is the only way that we ever get to "cured", and that makes for a very challenging waiting game in our years after cancer. Nothing has been more terrifying to me during these years than the fears of recurrence, and every strange pain or irregularity in our bodies brings these fears to life.
This is Part II of my three part series of essays on my struggles with post-traumatic stress after cancer. In Part I described what the whole experience felt like, and in this part I'm sharing the story of all that I did to cope with and overcome it, and all of the wonderful people that helped me get there. Fighting cancer was the easy part. Recovering from PTS after cancer is so much harder, because at first you have no idea who or what you're fighting against, only to realize it's you.
On at least two occasions when I've mentioned my cancer story to new friends or acquaintances that hadn't known, I've received comments that were just short of dismissive that testicular cancer is an "easy cancer", alluding to the high cure rate. I'll be honest in saying that I haven't been offended by such comments, because I know that short of having been there in some way themselves, it's simply impossible for people to truly know what a cancer diagnosis feels like, nor all that one entails.
I thought I had been doing so well after cancer. I had a new job and was back to life and living, but little did I know just how wounded I was inside. The stress of cancer survivorship started getting the better of me. A cancer warrior friend had died, and other friends of mine were experiencing recurrences. I had strange pains in my body, and thought for sure that my cancer was back, and that I was next. I had done so well for so long, but was so spooked and simply fell to pieces just short of two years after my cancer diagnosis.
25 Appointments and Counting... On the eve of my 4 year check-up for cancer, I rather foolishly clicked on a news video link of Virgin Atlantic Flight VS43's emergency landing in Gatwick last December. I've watched emergency landing videos before, but this is just asking for trouble around surveillance appointments, and I should have known better. As the Boeing 747-400 came down without its starboard main landing gear deployed, and with emergency vehicles lining the runway that were prepared for the worst, it was as though all of the collective fear, anxiety, and tension of the passengers on-board that aircraft found a way to channel straight through me. I could relate to this so well, because I know exactly what this feels like, and it's how I had already been feeling at the sub-conscious level. This is what I've been going through for 4 years now, over and over again, as an 'S.O.S.' cancer patient, "stranded on surveillance."
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.
After our fights with cancer are over, we all want so badly to believe that everything is behind us and that life is going to get back to normal. Those first weeks and months after our cancer fights are such a precious time. It’s our first taste of freedom after having been wrongfully held hostage by cancer for so long. I had my life back, but as time and the months went on I realized that it wasn’t my old life that I had back, but rather an entirely new one. Cancer survivorship brings with it an entirely new set of life circumstances and a whole lot of firsts, many of which I was completely unprepared to handle or to deal with at all.
If there's one thing I've learned over the years as a cancer survivor, and just one thing I could say or one piece of advice I could give to cancer survivors everywhere who might be struggling in these challenging new lives as I had been, it's that the best way to survive cancer is to live the best possible life that you can.