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  • Writer's pictureBrad Thiessen

Can a Cancer Survivor Have PTSD?

Last summer it occurred to me that PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) might apply to cancer survivors, looked it up, and sure enough – whammo – it’s a thing.

It seems trite to compare a medical issue, even one as bad as cancer, with the PTSD of a war veteran who can face a huge list of challenges such as losing a limb, flashbacks, anger issues, survivor’s guilt, perhaps the guilt of having killed civilians, the inability to find or keep work, and the many other possible issues that have rightly been raised around the lives of combat veterans over the past decade.

I’m not sure comparison is necessary. I don’t claim to share the pain of the combat veteran. All I can say is, it’s really tough.

(Yesterday I met a guy who had a melanoma removed from his leg a few years back, with only a few months’ recovery and no residual issues. He still had tears in his eyes. He doesn’t have to compare his trauma with mine, either.)

In term of trauma around cancer, perhaps the biggest mistake I made was getting a copy of an MRI that shows the hole in my brain (see photo above), because now it’s imprinted on my memory and pops up far too often.

Since the day we drove back home from the holiday break two weeks ago, that hole has been the pinpoint for mild but persistent headaches. Is the cancer recurring, or has my brain decided to allow stress to settle in that location? Because there’s been a fair bit of stress to include in the equation. On the other hand, the cancer is slated to return at any time…

We found out just before Christmas that as of January, our healthcare premiums would double – so we had to downgrade our plan. That means a) we have to go a month without any medical coverage until the new plan kicks in; and b) I no longer have coverage for specialist visits. The August 2017 MRI and neurosurgeon follow-up I deferred to September, then deferred to next month to save $1200 (under the old health plan), has now been canceled indefinitely to save $2,000 (under the new plan).

Here’s how that $2000 visit would have played out if I’d kept the appointment with the neurosurgeon:

Scenario 1: The MRI shows something that the headaches might be something. Let’s check again in 3 months = 3 months of wondering + another $2000. And probably nothing anyway, or possibly another 3-month wait for another follow-up, = another $2k.

Scenario 2: Hey there! Tumor’s back. That means you’re no longer Miracle Man. The death sentence has been un-commuted. Sure, you can go ahead and have another surgery/radiation/chemo treatment and go another $8k in debt, but the last time that happened it evidently didn’t work (like it doesn’t for 99% of those with your type of tumor).

That leaves a mystery pinpoint headache and the nagging reality of recurrence and likely extra medical bills. And all the while, mortality whispers in my ear and lulls me to sleep. With answers hidden behind an eighth-inch thick plate under my scalp.

There are other things to add, like the electric jolt that goes through me when I drive past the hospital, or the depression that's been growing, or the daily morbid ruminations on how Rachelle and the boys will feel a month or a year after I’m gone. Because yeah, I know I’m going to die long before retirement age – and don’t you dare say anything different. You don’t have the right.

That sure feels like post-traumatic stress.

Working too hard and running too little, not to mention walking beside my mother as she faces terminal lung cancer, have undoubtedly been contributing factors in the headaches and the stress. But I've joined a new running group, and made new boundaries with work, and walking with my mother is an honor. So there's hope all around.

Claire Weinland has grown up with Cystic Fybrosis, knowing she will die young, having nearly died six times and flat-lined once in an elevator. She shares about what it feels like to die in this video <>.

She says, “I’m opposed to the notion that you can do death properly… The truth is, the whole point of dying is to be scared. Because that meant that your life meant something to you. ... Even though it’s natural, even though it’s going to happen, even though you should come to terms with it in a certain way and go through the feeling of it and have a relationship with it, you also should acknowledge that when it’s going to happen, no matter how much you prepare, you’re going to be terrified. Because life does mean something. And there’s a part of your brain that knows you’re letting it go. And you’re always going to grieve that when it happens, and it’s okay.”

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