I was diagnosed with PTSD a couple of years ago. PTSD is triggered by a life threatening event that is beyond your control, like cancer, assault, or combat. Some of us will have symptoms but not recognize them immediately. You might feel detached from people, or feel too stressed and angry to talk to anyone. I became extremely anxious, like a wired cat, hissing at my family for no discernible reasons. I didn’t want them to pay attention to me, ask me questions or know how I was feeling. If I wanted to, I couldn’t have explained it. This all started after I received a phone call one very tranquil and pretty late afternoon.
The phone rang. It was one of my doctors. I wasn’t expecting a call from her. Her first couple of words were, “Your latest CT results are in…” I had another cancer, ten years after my first one! My mind joined the darkening horizon that the sun was letting go of. The air that I was breathing in became heavy, wet, like I was walking through a waterfall. I tried to quell the roar so that I could hear my doctor talk. Panic tried to swallow me whole as I yelled for Dave – where was he?
Suddenly he was right next to me and I didn’t want to have to tell him. But my news just spewed all over him like a geyser. Wasn’t I beyond another lung cancer after all this time? Hadn’t I paid my dues? When does this stop? How many more cancers would I get? Would I need chemo or radiation? I had no symptoms, none at all. I couldn’t have another cancer! Could I? Was that me yelling?
Since this was my second cancer my surgeon barely gave me a second to think about what came next. A week later, without seeing him I was prepped for my second lobectomy. I couldn’t believe that I had to go through it all again! I kept flashing back to my first lobectomy in a different hospital and the intern who took out my tubes. The operation lasted seven and a half hours. The surgeon first tried Video-Assisted Thoracoscopic Surgery. It is a minimally invasive surgical technique) However, he found that I had three small lesions and one of them had attached itself to my pleura. He then had to open my chest and remove that tumor the old fashion way.
I had another flash back centered around an incident that happened on my second night. I must have been hallucinating and not sleeping because when the staff wheeled in a woman she appeared to have putty all over her mouth area. A tube was coming out of it. I tried being very quiet so she wouldn’t see me or notice me. I was on my back, afraid to move. It wasn’t until the morning that I realized how petrified I felt, like a deer in the headlights, frozen to the ground.
A month after surgery I was given the choice to have chemo and I didn’t hesitate. My chemotherapy lasted four months. When it ended I was like a limp and soggy piece of lettuce. I seemed to have but a bit of life force left in me but I was barely functional. Moreover I slept or rested for days without moving. When I couldn’t sleep pictures of the infusion room, my nurses and other patients came in and out of my mind. As the weeks went by I tried desperately to move on and resume my life. As chemotherapy side effects waned I still felt out of balance.
I went to my doctor and she thought that I needed to learn the Epley Maneuver for vertigo. It wasn’t vertigo. After that I went to all sorts of doctors on and off for five years searching for answers. Finally a neurologist suggested that I could be having migraines. Bingo!! My headaches were not very severe at the time but melded into my feeling unwell. Their pain finally became the only grasp of reality I could feel. And as the year went on they got stronger and stronger.
Another year passed by and I felt the air whispering that something was still not right. It was more than migraines. I was not well. Depression and anger were my prevailing winds and refused to budge. No one seemed to know what was wrong with me. I felt emotionally cut off and sensed that I was starting to disappear. I was petrified, and yet unable to help myself. PTSD had grabbed a hold of me and I lost all control of who I had been, all I was inside.
I felt that there was a chasm where I used to be, a world of people and doings that I no longer felt a part of. PTSD no longer allowed my hopelessness to heal. Life became an unpacking of hope. It was robbing me of any promise of what would be. I wrapped myself with my blanket on my bed and drifted into a world that was filled with horrible memories and dreams. Holding on to my sheets was the only guarantee that I wouldn’t fall out.
I cancelled lots of engagements and meetings with friends. Doctor’s appointments and medical tests were the only outdoor activities that I could handle. I had been an advocate for the American Cancer Society and I stopped going to meetings. Another instance of distancing myself was when I stopped exercising and walking. That was when I lost hope that things would ever look brighter. Depression and anxiety were my forces to reckon with and moving forward when I felt such shame and guilt seemed unattainable. I couldn’t seem to find any control of my life that would guide me out of bed. It was my safe place where I could wonder into dangerous flashbacks that displaced the happy world that I had been used to. Where did it go?
I continued to have follow-up CT scans and two more cancers were found within three years of each other. My active days dwindled even more to watching movies and staying on my bed. I couldn’t take the chance of letting any bit of reality in. I didn’t want to feel the hurt and mental pain of thinking about what I had been through and my fear of another cancer and dying. After the first of those cancers my depression grew deeper and deeper, like when you head into the water at the beach. With each step I knew that I would sink with the next wave and not be able to get up. My anxiety was on red alert. I was prepared to shelter myself at all cost. And then my fourth cancer showed up and something changed.