We all know— or most of us can infer, anyway— that being diagnosed with and treated for cancer is, by definition, stressful.
Many of us, myself included, have had the sad experience of watching a family member or friend struggle with cancer over the course of years.
There are many people who make significant headway in their battle with cancer; there are people whose cancer goes into remission and people who are declared cancer free at various times along the way; and, conversely, there are people for whom the disease progresses unexpectedly quickly and tragically.
I don’t need to tell anyone who has struggled with cancer, either personally or in their sphere, how stressful it is, simply on a physical level.
What I wish was more widely understood, however, is that being diagnosed with and treated for cancer, particularly over the longer term, is a trauma of the kind that produces post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While of course many people acknowledge how stressful cancer can be in the abstract, it seems I rarely see cancer (or other chronic, unpredictable, serious diseases) explicitly identified as the precipitator of traumatic stress.
I assure you: cancer is a traumatic stressor…and it is helpful for those whose lives are touched by cancer to think of it as a form of trauma.
What does that mean?
That means that, whatever physical symptoms and side effects caused by cancer and cancer treatment…there is GOING to be an emotional impact as well, both for cancer patients and those close to them.
The depression that many cancer patients experience is not simply sadness at receiving a potentially serious diagnosis— it is a very prominent trauma symptom, described by almost everybody who is exposed to traumatic stress.
The anxiety that many cancer patients experience is not just uncertainty regarding their personal future or their health outcome— it, too, is a very prominent symptom of post traumatic stress, so much so that PTSD has historically been considered primarily an anxiety disorder.
When you’ve been exposed to traumatic stress, you will often find yourself vulnerable to “triggers”— things in the environment that touch off an emotional response that might seem outsized in the actual moment, but the intensity of which is related to its relevance to your past and ongoing trauma.
While it may be predictable for cancer patients to experience ups and downs in mood, energy, and motivation, it’s important to realize that that’s not JUST about their physical prognosis or symptoms— trauma itself has the effect of throwing off our ability to regulate our mood and direct our focus.
Why is any of this important?
Because when you’re facing a serious health situation like cancer, you need to have as developed an understanding as possible what you’re up against.
And as intimidating and exhausting as trauma responses are…we know things about how trauma works.
We know things about how trauma can be managed and, eventually, healed.
We know, for example, that the depression that comes with traumatic stress may not be as responsive as you’d expect to standard antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy…but that psychotherapy focused first on emotional regulation (i.e., managing your emotional ups and downs, rather than improving your mood) can start to make headway with trauma-based depression.
We know that the anxiety that comes with trauma disorders can be resistant to over-intellectualized assurances of safety (i.e., reminding yourself that you are “safe”)…but that using visualization and your senses to create a FELT sense of safety that touches your right brain and activates your parasympathetic nervous system can be effective.
We know that one of the most common trauma responses is to “dissociate” from moments of pain and feeling overwhelmed, and that it doesn’t work to try to “force” ourselves to be present…but that if we learn to recognize when we’re dissociating, and use simple grounding and centering exercises, we can learn to both be present and handle those feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
All I want to do with this blog entry is raise your awareness to the fact that, if you are right now dealing with cancer in your life, you are, by definition, taking on a trauma.
There is no shame in responding to trauma like human beings respond to trauma…though trauma is really good at making us FEEL ashamed of our responses.
Please take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with what is known about PTSD and complex PTSD.
Please include coping with traumatic stress among your priorities as you continue to deal with cancer going forward.
And when you are triggered— as many people are during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, for example— remember that what you’re experiencing is not mysterious or evidence that you are broken.
You’re going through a trauma, and your nervous system is recognizing it.
Give yourself the tools to effectively handle this aspect of what’s happening to you.
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