My post-cancer PTSD time-bomb

In this guest blog post, Shine community member Jen shares her experiences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after breast cancer, and how these feelings affect her upcoming brain surgery for an unrelated condition.


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Meet Jen!

It seems that having cancer – and more specifically, months of treatment to be rid of that cancer – leaves you with a ticking PTSD time-bomb for future serious medical issues. No shit Sherlock, I hear you scream! I know – it seems obvious, doesn’t it? PTSD is just another one of the many, many things that nobody prepares you for when you walk through that hospital door after cancer treatment, merrily waving your goodbyes and looking forward to returning to your life. I had cancer at 36 and, touch wood, I am all clear so far. Given this diagnosis, it would seem pretty feasible that I might come up against another serious medical issue at some point. Why would nobody think to address the trauma of cancer? Mental health is yet another thing that sadly falls by the wayside for younger adults with cancer.

I’m sure that my experience of PTSD will resonate with others – and I hadn’t really dealt with, acknowledged, or understood the trauma until very recently. It makes perfect sense that what happens to us after cancer is going to be influenced by our experiences of diagnosis and treatment, just as all our other life experiences shape us and influence how we react and respond to future events.

I’ve learned that the actual ‘trauma’ of post-traumatic stress might be something that was not initially perceived as trauma. Trauma can be something that creeps up on you over time: it grows with you, in you and through you, slowly and steadily like a fungus. When you get diagnosed with cancer, there’s no time to deal with your feelings about it. Instead, you batten down the hatches and get on with getting through whatever you have to get through. There is a lot of information to take on board, but pretty much everything is out of your control. You are swept along on a rollercoaster ride from hell and when it ends, you are just thankful that you are still standing –  regardless of the state you are in, and the trauma that may have occurred along the way. You process your emotions in the months and years afterwards, and the trauma creeps up on you unexpectedly.

I have known for years that eventually I will need surgery on a slow-growing, benign brain tumour. It’s in a very awkward place. I have a condition called Schwannomatosis. It was diagnosed after cancer, so it seems that I am doubly special and unique! I have yearly scans and appointments with a specialist team of neurologists, and then I shelve it away for another twelve months and get on with living my best life. I’m pretty good at that! I genuinely don’t dwell on it. I had thought that this pattern would go on for many years to come so, other than the annual drama of getting a cannula into my chemo-destroyed veins (and a small amount of pain from time to time), I could almost live in happy denial. Unfortunately, in September 2018 this all changed: the little bugger had grown significantly in the past two years and if it continued, my eyesight would quickly become compromised. This means that I now need fairly complex and somewhat risky neurosurgery.

I am great at going to appointments and discussing all the details, from options to risks. But as I get closer to the operation, I’m not entirely sure how I am going to be able to let it happen to me! I know I have to, right? I know I do. It has to be done. It’s been planned and discussed, and I’ve been waiting for months. But the thought of having my body cut into again, damaged and broken, and drugs being pumped into my fragile veins? It just makes me feel nauseous, and that feeling triggers vivid memories!

It has been five years this month since my breast cancer surgery. Beforehand I had had four months of chemotherapy, and post-surgery I had five weeks of radiotherapy. My body has healed and my hair has regrown (sadly not my eyebrows, but I do have rather fabulous tattooed ones now!). I still ache though. I have radiotherapy damage in the bones and muscle on my chest wall, and I’m reminded of this when my kids hug me a little too tight. I have permanently painful toenails – first because they fell off during chemo, then from walking around the Isle of Wight (stupid me), and then from walking up Kilimanjaro (double stupid me!). I bruise easily, and my joints ache due to the drugs I take to keep the cancer from returning.

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Jen and her family

My youngest daughter has to hold my left hand rather than my right as she tends to tug and it hurts the back of my hand. My hand has never had a chance to recover from the onslaught of cannulas. I mention these things not as a sob story, but to explain that my instinct is to be very protective of myself.

I hate it when I hurt. I hate getting badly bruised if I clumsily walk into something. It makes me mad: disproportionally mad or disproportionally upset, depending on the situation. The thought of rocking up to a hospital voluntarily to check myself in for a lengthy, complex surgical procedure is obviously horrific – with or without the prior experience of cancer. Alongside these feelings comes an overwhelming, intrinsic, sense of self-preservation. I just don’t want my body to suffer anything more – it’s bounced back from so much, and I’m so thankful. This time it feels like I am choosing to do this to my body, and it will never forgive me!

Along with all these thoughts comes cancer guilt: the guilt that comes with survival when those with the same cancer and prognosis as you have gone. The guilt of remaining cancer free while friends get secondary diagnoses. The guilt of forgetting to be grateful every single day because there are people hoping for just one more day of life. The guilt of being stressed about one single surgery when there are people going through far worse in a desperate attempt to simply survive.

I have to have surgery. It sucks, but at least it isn’t cancer this time.

If you’ve enjoyed this blog, we’d love to connect with you! If you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s and have had a cancer diagnosis, why not join our private Facebook group

Life – but not as you knew it: Living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

A couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to be introduced to Greig Trout, a two-time cancer fighter who is currently travelling around the world, getting his mojo back.  Greig is followed on Twitter by thousands who virtually keep up with his adventures. While we admire (and are hugely jealous!) of Greig’s amazing travels, we also really appreciate the honesty he’s shown in talking about the mental health impact of his cancer diagnoses. In our latest blog, Greig talks about the insomnia, depression and post-traumatic stress he’s had to cope with since he finished his last treatment.  None of these things get talked about enough and many people diagnosed with cancer feel like there’s something wrong with them when they don’t ‘bounce back’ to their pre-diagnosis selves.  Take a read below – we’d love to know what you think. You can tweet us on @shinecancersupp or email us at info@shinecancersupport.co.uk


Greig Trout photo

Greig on his travels

 

Anyone who has survived cancer will tell you that there is never a moment where the doctor turns to you and declares “you are cured”. To my knowledge that didn’t happen when I survived cancer as a child and it certainly didn’t happen this time round as an adult. Every six months you are simply told “all is looking good, I’ll see you in another 6 months”.

I was first diagnosed with cancer as a seven-year old. I had a stage IV Wilms tumour. It was pretty far gone and I had tumours in my lungs, my arteries and my kidney. As well as having my kidney removed, I had extensive chemo and radiotherapy. I was very lucky to survive when many others on my ward didn’t.

My worst fear came true at the age of 30 when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I couldn’t believe it. My mum had always told me that I’d had my tough time in life and that it would never come back. Perhaps rather naively I believed her.

Getting cancer as an adult was a completely different experience to that as a child. The only things I remember about being ill as a child are being sick all the time, losing my hair and the smell of the chemo. I don’t remember ever worrying immediately afterwards whether it would come back or not. People would say how brave I was but in truth I just had no idea what was going on.

As an adult I completely crumbled both before and especially afterwards. When I was ill I always believed I would get better but when I was better I didn’t believe that I was. I liken it to climbing Everest only to get the top and then suddenly having all your ropes and safety equipment taken away. I was gripped by fear. Fear of the cancer coming back, fear it hadn’t actually gone, and fear that I had very limited time.

This fear led to a whole assortment of issues. I suffered from insomnia, spending most nights staring at the ceiling first just worrying about cancer and then about pretty much everything else. I then developed severe eczema on my face and body and, when I did sleep, I suffered from night sweats. I was highly emotional and lost all my confidence. I felt like a glass filled to the top and just one drop would send me over the edge.

The worst thing about all of this was that I hated myself for feeling this way. Wasn’t I supposed to be filled with pure elation and with a new love of life, like all the cancer survivors I’d read about? I was certainly grateful but happiness seemed to elude me. I’d gone from someone who was confident and enthusiastic about life to someone who didn’t even want to leave the house. When I saw friends they would often comment on my skin or how tired I looked. It was tiredness that led me to finding out I had cancer, so each time someone said this all I heard was “Greig, you still have cancer”.

I honestly thought I was losing my mind. Cancer was all I thought about. I tried different forms of therapy and eventually resorted to anti-depressants. The relationship I was in then ended; looking back perhaps shouldn’t have come as a surprise.  I wasn’t the man she fell in love with anymore.

It wasn’t until I chanced upon an article in a women’s magazine that it occurred to me that maybe everything I was feeling was actually normal. The article was about the singer Kylie Minogue. Kylie had survived breast cancer and in the article she said that there wasn’t a day that went by where she didn’t think about cancer. Perhaps selfishly, this made me feel better. It seemed I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. I had read so many books where people proudly claimed that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them. This was the first thing I’d read which I related to.

It took my doctors a long time to use the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for my mental and physical condition. I had always associated PTSD with the military and war so I’d never associated it with cancer or illness. This seems ridiculous now considering it is all in the title; ‘post-trauma’. It doesn’t matter what kind of trauma it is.

My issues with PTSD have been worse than both my cancers put together. When I was ill I always had hope that I would be okay but that hope quickly vanished when I was better and it was the worst feeling in the world. Without hope I was lost.

I’m currently on an around the world trip and it’s my on-going experience with anxiety and PTSD that not only prompted me to take it, but also to share my story. I wondered how many people out there hadn’t read that article about Kylie and I wondered how many people felt like I did.

The good news is that a feeling of fear and anger after cancer is completely normal, and the anxiety can be controlled. I have received hundreds of emails from people around the world who have gone through exactly the same thing.  I found that simply writing a list of things to look forward to helped me to overcome my fear of the future. Within a couple of months of writing my list I started to sleep again and my skin cleared up. I started to feel excited about the future instead of fearing it.

Cancer is still my first thought of the day but I can now turn my thoughts around to much happier and optimistic ones. I have found that doing things you enjoy is the best medicine of all. You don’t have to travel the world but simply do some thing that makes you happy. Watching the sun go down or having a cup of coffee while watching the world go by are still my most favourite things in the world. I just try to do them more often now.

The main thing people should know who are also going through this is that you are not alone and that there is hope.

You can follow Grieg on Twitter at @101Greig. You can also follow his adventures of 101 Things to do when you Survive on Facebook here

If you need further help and advice to cope with anxiety, depression or PTSD, you may find the following links useful:

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

Mayo Clinic blog on PTSD and cancer

Depression and Cancer on Cancer Research UK’s website

Minh’s Great Escape

Between Jan 29th and February 1st, Shine ran our second Great Escape. For those of you who don’t know, the Escape is one of our best events – a three and a half day get together for young adults with cancer. We take over a hotel, we hang out, we talk about all the stuff we don’t usually get to talk about (like dating, depression and infertility) – and this year we hit the karaoke hard. You can see a video of our 2014 Escape here.

One of our Escapees, Minh, has written a bit about his experience at the Escape. Take a read – and get ready to sign up for Great Escape 2016!

2015 Escapee Minh Ly

2015 Escapee Minh Ly

The Lead Up

I began writing this as I sat on the train to head down Bournemouth for the Shine “Great Escape”. I’ve been in remission coming up to 8 years now and have pushed it to the back of my mind quite well. I can’t help but feel scared about spending four days talking and hearing about the subject cancer. I fear bringing up the past.

Why then, did I decide to go on the Escape? Well the fear didn’t really occur to me when I applied! Looking back on my application, I put that “I would like to spend time with people who have and are going through similar things that I’ve been through, particularly in my age range”.

I’d been to a couple of the Shine meet ups in London where I had met a few of the other “Escapees”. To help everyone get to know one another a little, we were all asked for a photo and a few paragraphs about ourselves to circulate. And to get us talking, a private group on Facebook was set up for us. It seems that I wasn’t the only one feeling slightly nervous.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but with clear skies from the window of the train, I hope for it to stay like this for the walk on the final day!

The Escape

“What happens at the Escape, stays at the Escape!” – an Escapee, 2015

The whole experience and organising was great! Shine knows not to jump into the heavy topics on the first day, with everyone tired from travelling and new to one another, so they ease us in with introductions, let us get to know each other, have us do magazine cutting collages, and share our first dinner together. It was a very warm welcome.

The following days, a number of different sessions were run, some for everyone and the others in parallel, allowing the Escapees to choose the sessions that was more relevant to them. I’ve only been to the standard conference-type events, where you sit in an hour long session just to hear a couple of people talk, so that was what I thought the Escape would be like – but it wasn’t. Instead, there would be a short talk on a topic and then some form of interaction, whether that was breaking away into smaller groups for a bit of discussion before feeding back to the group as a whole or individually.

For me the topics were interesting, thought provoking and sometimes hard-hitting.  I particularly found myself nodding (well inside my head!) to a lot that was said in a session about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I’ve bottled a lot up and not really spoken about cancer until it’s too late and I have some form of breakdown. This session told me that I’m not the only one having trouble after remission and also that this can happen not just straight after treatment but many years later.

There was a lot to take in over the four days and I didn’t get time to process it all during the time away. There is so much going on, but its not always full-on; there are plenty of tea and coffee breaks (much cake included!) and you get free time to explore Bournemouth, the beach (5 minutes away), chat with others or just relax in your room. In the evenings, to take your mind off it all you could play a bit of bingo (with a variety of alternate bingo number calls) or partake/listen to the rest of the gang hitting up the mic and doing a bit of karaoke.

There was a sadness to be leaving the others at the end of the Escape, but I also felt ready to go back to my life, and ready to take action on the next steps.

The end of the Escape, but the start of moving on.

During the Escape, I thought about what I was looking for, why I came to the Escape and what I really wanted. This kept changing from session to session, day to day. After the first day I was sceptical about whether I would get anything out of the Escape as my mind seemed so lost and confused.

So what did I get? Firstly, I got the realisation that I need to talk about what’s happened to me, to relive it and stop burying it in the back of my head, whether that be by writing a personal diary, blogging ,or talking to a counsellor. I will never be able to get rid of the memories of being ill, but everything I learned at the Escape will help to dampen the effect it has on me when it suddenly crops up in my head.

Second, in the other Escapees, I’ve found friends who understand and who I can talk to when it feels like there is no one. Everyone is very supportive of one another and even after the Escape that has continued online.

Overall I feel good! I’ve had a bit of weight off my shoulders and though I’m not sure how long this feeling will last, I now know what needs to be done.  I think this is the first time that I’ve been in a positive mind-set about my cancer since I got into remission.

What people get out of the Escape will differ depending on their experience, but one thing is for sure: you will meet a fantastic set of people. The Escape was full of laughs (and some tears) as well as fun, and amazing people. It’s something I needed and something I will never forget. Thanks Shine and big hugs to the Escapees of 2015!

Minh Ly is a member of Shine’s London network.  He was treated for lymphoma 8 years ago and is in remission.