The Cancer Olympics
When I was in treatment, I used to look at that word with longing. I thought, if I was ever so lucky to be a survivor, I would consider that phase so easy.
Today, four years since by diagnosis of stage IIIC colorectal cancer, I see it differently.
I am a Registered Clinical Psychologist, when I am not an active cancer crusader, patient advocate, and fervid writer. Professionally and personally, I encounter the psychological demands of survivorship. I am grateful to Marie Ennis-O’Connor for the opportunity to enlarge on cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Recent research has underscored that cancer is psychologically as well as physically traumatic. A 2010 study of breast cancer survivors indicated that as many as 45% had symptoms of post traumatic stress, and 16% had the full-blown PTSD. That is, these women experienced the same symptoms of chronic fear, insomnia, vigilance, numbness, and flashbacks that are common among rape victims and combat veterans.
And why not? Although these results astonished the medical community, they make sense to us patients. Survivors have endured a life-threatening experience and undergone continuous and harrowing treatments. Some of us have lost work, or lost body parts. We have suffered harsh experiences for many months, even years. We must live with the fear of recurrence, and bear up under triggering experiences like surveillance tests. Of course we struggle with post traumatic symptoms – we have been traumatized!
So what are the symptoms of cancer PTSD? The new DSM-V lists four criteria:
- Re-experiencing refers to having intrusive thoughts or memories of the cancer, nightmares, flashbacks, or intense reactivity to reminders of it, such as the anniversary date of your surgery;
- Avoidance refers to staying away from thoughts, feelings, people, or situations connected to the cancer. For example, I have a survivor friend who cannot even drive past the hospital;
- Heightened arousal symptoms describe the ways that the brain remains “on edge,” wary and watchful of further threats. Irritability, hypervigilance, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating can be examples; and,
- Negative alterations in mood or cognitions refers to being “stuck” in painful thoughts or emotions since the cancer, such as intense shame or self-blame.
In my book The Cancer Olympics, I describe what these symptoms were like for me. “Whenever I encountered a triggering stimulus, such as the smell inside a hospital, I would experience a full body shudder, and the saliva would come warm and plentiful to my mouth.” In my own case, I sought a therapy I had used successfully myself with veterans with PTSD – a best-practice treatment with the unusual name of Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR). This treatment breaks down the experience into tiny tolerable elements. Using it, I was able to see my cancer as a chapter in my life – not the whole book. (Although I must tell you all that The Cancer Olympics is a cracking good read! Available on Amazon, Indigo, Barnes and Noble, and itunes! 😉 ).
Most survivors will struggle with these post traumatic thoughts and feelings from time to time. However, if these symptoms are strong enough to interfere with your daily functioning, I encourage you to seek help from a qualified mental health practitioner. Cancer took so much from us in the past. There is no need for it to take any more – get help if you need it, and understand and forgive yourself if survivorship is difficult sometimes.
About the author
Dr. Robin McGee is a Registered Clinical Psychologist, mother, wife, educator, and friend. Her book The Cancer Olympics is a suspenseful account of her search for justice from the College of Physicians and Surgeons for the inadequate care that resulted in her very delayed diagnosis. It also recounts how she used social media to lobby her government to cover the best-practice chemotherapy for her kind of cancer (although too late for her to receive it). Amazon.ca reviews describe it as “brilliant and powerful,” “riveting,” “a David vs Goliath story”, “enthralling… impossible to put down.”
Visit http://www.thecancerolympics.com for more information.