The ogre on your shoulder; PTSD after breast cancer.
One day you are relaxing comfortably in your living room reading a book, and out of nowhere a bomb is dropped on your house. Everything around you is unrecognisable, your body hurts, your hair is burned to a singe. You sit there, terrified, struggling to breathe. Wondering what the hell just happened and what to do next. That is what it feels like to be diagnosed with cancer. Life as you know it, your outlook, your self image and even your relationships are suddenly completely changed. It’s no wonder then that so many of us suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after breast cancer.
So what does PTSD look like for breast cancer survivors, and how can we manage it? Let’s take a closer look.
What is PTSD?
“An anxiety disorder caused by major physical or emotional trauma. The patient experiences persistent recurrent images or memories of the event, together with nightmares, a sense of isolation, guilt, irritability and loss of concentration. Emotions may be deadened and depression may develop.”
Sound familiar? If so it’s not surprising. Facing breast cancer and enduring often long and arduous treatment is a prolonged trauma.
Why having breast cancer can cause PTSD.
You lose control, forced into treatment that scares and poisons you in order to save your life.
It steals your identity, you are suddenly a cancer patient before anything else. If you have chemotherapy or a mastectomy there might even be a time when you look in the mirror and have no idea who the person looking back is.
The fear is immense and overwhelming. You are literally and suddenly fighting for your life. Worrying about those you might leave behind, particularly if you have young children and dependents, is a terror like no other.
And then you are spat out at the other end, uncertain of what your future holds or how to get back to normal life.
Experiencing PTSD after breast cancer is common and valid. You are not alone.
General symptoms of PTSD.
- Nightmares and insomnia.
- Intrusive thoughts.
- Anxiety that is easily triggered by things that remind you of the traumatic event.
- Avoidance of people or places that remind you of the traumatic event.
- Memory problems.
- Feeling emotionally numb.
- Irritability and angry outbursts.
- Guilt or shame.
- Self destructive behaviours such as drinking too much.
- Always being on guard.
How does PTSD manifest itself in breast cancer survivors?
You may experience some or all of the above symptoms. It will be a unique experience for each and every one of us depending on what exactly we went through and how our minds process it.
Here is how I personally experience PTSD after having cancer.
Intrusive thoughts about recurrence and dying.
Even now, 4 years since my diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, the fear of recurrence is still something that weighs on me. I know that within an instant I could be plunged back into cancer’s murky depths. Sometimes I feel it more sharply than others. I look at my childrens beautiful faces and waves of fear induced nausea crash over me. Other times, most of the time now, it is packed neatly away at the back of my mind.
Anxiety triggered by certain things.
It might be the hospital where I was diagnosed and treated. In fact any hospital or medical setting, even if I am not there for myself. Hearing that song that played on the radio a lot when I was going through chemotherapy. Feeling nauseaous takes me back to having chemo (which made the first trimester of my post cancer pregnancy particularly challenging.) Hearing about somebody either in real life or even on TV dying of breast cancer can take my breath away.
My biggest triggers are the yearly maintenance scans I need. Be it mammograms, ultrasounds or PET scans. This is an issue so prevalent among cancer survivors it’s been given its own name;
Some, like me, feel scanxiety physically. A tightening of the chest, heart palpitations, insomnia. I have to physically force myself into those situations after days of feeling anxious. Of course the relief afterwards (if you’re lucky) is fantastic. Every cloud I guess.
A feeling of dissociation.
This is something I have only recently been able to identify. No matter what wonderful things happen in my life, I can’t seem to enjoy them as much as I “should”. That’s not to say I don’t feel immense happiness, I truly do. But I can’t shake the feeling of not trusting it. I recognise now that this comes from the double whammy of my run in with breast cancer, and of losing my unborn son 6 months before that. I’m subconsciously waiting for the next bomb to drop.
How to deal with PTSD after breast cancer.
Speak to your doctor.
First of all it’s wise to consider getting some professional therapy. There are many therapies that can be used to help you manage PTSD. Research shows that fewer than a third of cancer survivors talk about mental health issues with their doctors, even though they are at a high risk of depression and anxiety. I get it, I avoided it for a good couple of years post treatment. But talking to a counsellor early on can prevent issues from becoming too serious.
Connect with others.
Another thing you might benefit from is talking with women who have been through what you have. This could be through an organisation such as Breast Friends or social media groups. Please also feel free to contact me directly if you need a friendly ear. No one understands this journey quite like those that have walked in your shoes.
Take back the control.
Make conscious lifestyle changes that support your physical AND mental well being. Do the things that make you happy. Maintain a well balanced, nutritious diet, move your body regularly, rest when you need to and learn healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress and anxiety. For me, this is probably the most important part.
If you are trying to take positive steps towards a healthier physical and mental state, you might enjoy these articles;
- How to deal with the fear of recurrence.
- My lifestyle choices since having breast cancer.
- “Radical acceptance” for coping with breast cancer and fear of recurrence.
- Sugar and breast cancer.
- Broccoli sprouts and breast cancer
Be patient with yourself.
If you resonate with any of this, especially if you are recently diagnosed or finished with treatment, it can seem like a bleak road ahead. But let me reassure you, time really is a great healer. Time dulls memory, creates distance and provides perspective. The further out you get from the experience, the stronger you will feel. The great ogre on your shoulder will become more of a gremlin, still batting at you from time to time but increasingly easier to flick off.
Head over to my blog posts page for more.