Post cancer stress disorder

Have you ever gone through trying circumstances valiantly, where you keep it all together, stay brave and strong, only to collapse in a heap after the situation is over? Well that’s my experience with chemotherapy.

I haven’t written for nearly three months and there are probably many reasons why. Being back at work full time, teaching and practicing more yoga has kept me busy. Feeling like I don’t have as much to write about. But in truth, it’s mostly because I’ve been struggling. My emotions have been hanging out at a theme park. The red light on my resilience tank has been blinking ominously and I don’t know where to refuel.

Running on empty

When I re-read my last post, I wonder who wrote it. At the end of last year, I was feeling like I sailed through chemo relatively unscathed, both physically and mentally. I was (mostly) able to maintain a pretty positive attitude, and in fact had periods of feeling calmer than I ever have before. At Christmas, when my Dad was visiting, he told me how much he wished I didn’t have to deal with “all of this”. I told him, “Dad, I have already gotten over it and moved on, you need to keep up”.

But when I returned to work in the New Year, in the midst of an organisational restructure, I found myself becoming an emotional mess. Quite regularly. Let’s just say that I have cried more tears in the last three months than I have in the last 10 years. And I couldn’t understand it. I was through the other side of chemo, feeling good physically, my hair was growing back. Yet whilst I haven’t felt like I am stressed or worried about cancer itself, I have found that my resilience for dealing with any other area of my life that caused me stress was just not there.

You know, the little things that cause stress. Like worrying whether you will have a job. Like feeling unattractive and butch with short, stubbly grey hair. Like trying to make decisions about what to cook for dinner. Like dealing with deep seated and complex issues that manifest both physically and emotionally. That make you wonder whether not dealing with them is what gave you cancer in the first place.

Of course, I was going through radiotherapy at the same time and have started hormone therapy. Although as I said it hasn’t felt like cancer treatment has been what’s worrying me. Radiotherapy thankfully wasn’t too tough but perhaps just going there every day and being surrounded by people battling with cancer has more of an impact on my mental health than I was aware of.  Where I used to get a sense of comfort from going to the hospital, once I started going every Monday to Friday for six weeks, I very quickly became “over it”.

For those curious about what radiotherapy involves, here’s a typical day: I arrive at reception and confirm my appointment time for the next day. Sit in the waiting room until I am told to get changed. I go to the cupboard, where I have my own shelf, upon which sits a bag with my own hospital gown. I remove the top half of my clothes and get into the gown. I then go to another waiting room and wait to be called onto the radiotherapy bed. Every day I have to recite my name, date of birth and address and what part of my body is being treated so the staff know that they have the right person. To relieve the tedium I give my date of birth as 1984 to see if they notice.

Then I climb on the bed, lower my gown and have two to three people hovering over my breast, drawing texta marks on my skin. You learn to give up any modesty pretty quickly.They line the marks up with laser beams to ensure that the exact same spot will be treated each time. Then the staff leave the room and I am alone, vulnerable. I suck at being vulnerable. Thankfully the actual “zapping” is quick, and I don’t feel a thing. But progressively my skin gets more red, tender and sore as the weeks progress.

At the end of it, there is some relief. It’s a significant milestone, but I still have another 6 months of 3-weekly intravenous infusions. Thankfully, I am starting to feel better and more myself. I have a new role at work which I am enjoying, I am teaching yoga one night a week, and I am planning a three week trip to Europe in May. The emotional roller coaster has dipped and is climbing high again.

Onwards and upwards

4 thoughts on “Post cancer stress disorder

  1. Lots of love and hugs being sent cyberly your way.
    I haven’t been through what you have however I can definately relate to having a break down after the dust settles – it has been a regular occurrence throughout my life after any major life changing event or difficult time so I can say with certainty that I know exactly what you mean and I sympathize. Delayed reaction; that’s what I call it.
    Cry it out mate; better late than never xx

  2. Beautiful girl, I had just no idea. Well done you for an amazing piece. Sending you love and strength. I’m here for you. X

  3. I can relate to the ‘post illness stress disorder’. For me, I have had to discover that I no longer need a disease to make major change in my life. You can kind of grow attached to an illness, especially when it has presented so much opportunity for growth, resilience and learning. Of course it’s not nice, but personally, my own illness has changed my life for the better. But now the choices I make are more based on asking myself ‘is this for my highest good’? Whereas in the past my choices would be more driven and motivated by fear of the consequences to my health.

    It requires adjustment and more time. You’re an amazing woman Danielle! I really admire you sharing your journey and your vulnerability. This is truly what brings us together.


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