A RoadMap For Post-Traumatic Growth
What do you do as a cancer survivor (or “thriver” as I call myself) when you have surgery that is completely unrelated to cancer?
I was lying on the operating table as the anesthesiologist and nurses were prepping me for a procedure that not only had nothing to do with the breast cancer I dealt with five years prior, but that for most people is a piece-of -cake outpatient procedure. And yet I was terrified and crying like a little kid. The nurses couldn’t understand why I was so upset, until I told them that the last time I had surgery it was because of cancer.
I was actually a super healthy (and lucky) person before cancer. I had never even broken a bone, let alone been in the hospital. I had my wisdom teeth removed years before the cancer and remember having absolutely no issues or fear – in fact I thought anesthesia was fun! But the excruciating surgeries, frightening doctors visits, and poking and prodding on chemo days that led to horrible side effectsleft me with some emotional scars that flare up when I am placed in what I will call “medical situations” now, even if those situations are totally unrelated to the big C. I guess it’s some sort of PTSD.
But since I’ve hopefully got a lot of years ahead of me, I decided that I would like to try and heal myself of this PTSD so that I can cope and even thrive the next time I am in a “medical situation”. In order to come up with a roadmap, I asked some experts for some tips. In synthesizing these awesome pieces of advice, I came up with my own step-by step “Thriver’s Roadmap to PTG.” It’s currently untested, but I plan on using this the next time I am placed in a medical situation. Feel free to test it yourself and let me know how it goes!
Step One: A Trip Down Memory Lane.
One of the themes that the experts repeated several times is the need to investigate and identify our feelings and attitude towards medical situations, and then to actively try to change them. So before you have to deal with your next medical situation, get out that notebook and a pen!
In order to investigate, we need to go back in time. If you are severely traumatized this may be something that you need to do with the assistance of a licensed therapist, but if you feel you can handle it, I suggest starting by writing in as much detail as possible about each of the cancer-related medical situations that you can remember. Close your eyes. See the room, the doctors, the nurses. Allow yourself to experience what it was like being there. Write down exactly what you see. And exactly how it makes you feel.
For example, I see myself lying in a hospital bed with an IV coming out of me and a nurse who is a stranger coming over to give me some unknown medication. The bed is white. The walls of the room are white. My blanket is some kind of blue and white pattern. It smells like rubbing alcohol. I feel fear, loneliness, and pain. It feels like there is an elephant standing on my chest and I can’t breathe. I start to cry and angrily tell the nurse to leave me alone.
Now, go back through each scenario you have written about. Ask yourself in each instance what it REALLY was that you were afraid of? Or angry at? What exactly was it that was causing the feelings that you had? For instance, I was not really angry at the nurse, I was afraid because I felt out of control over my own body. Write down whatever comes to mind.
Close your eyes one more time. For each scenario, try to find something positive about the experience. Maybe it is as small as the friend who holds your hand, the flowers that your coworkers send you, or the smile that another patient flashes your way. Or maybe it is more significant, for instance, when I was in that situation, my father came over to the bed and held my hand the whole night so that I felt safe. Someone close to me really had an opportunity to be there for me, and I, someone who rarely asks for help, was able to experience receiving that care. On a new piece of paper, write down as many of these plusses as you can think of.
Disregard the first page(s) in which you recount your negative and traumatic experiences. Burn the pages if you think that this will symbolically help you to release those associations. Read over your plusses as much and and often as necessary to help you start to form new associations.
Step Two: Get Support From Others.
Before you get into your next medical situation, find some peer-support. Whether it is a group or a mentor, find people who can relate to what you are dealing with and who can validate your feelings. Likely these will be other people who have had cancer, therapists, or people with a very high level of emotional intelligence. For example, Sharsheret has an amazing peer support network that provides one-on-one pairing with a woman who has been through a similar situation. Or Thrivacious, the organization that I started for English-speaking women in Israel, provides group workshops and meetups with other women who have been affected by cancer. Whether it’s one-on-one, group therapy, or individual therapy with a professional, talk to these folks in the days leading up to your procedure. See if one of them will come with you. The most important thing is to surround yourself with people who can understand, empathize and offer positive reinforcement.
Step Three: D-Day.
On the day of the procedure, don’t go in alone. Come with your army. While a person could be helpful (see Step Two), this also includes bringing other tools with you – perhaps your notebook of positive associations, your iPod with a few songs preloaded that make you feel relaxed and happy, an object that you feel represents your courage, etc. Try to smile as much as possible – even if the smile is fake. The physical act of smiling has been proven to uplift mood and relieve anxiety. And finally, if you are still feeling nervous, tell the medical staff how you feel and why you feel that way. For instance: “I am feeling nervous because I went through some very frightening and painful surgeries in the past.”
Step Four: Write down your new positive associations!
Each time you have a new experience, that’s an opportunity to create new positive associations in your memory bank. So make sure that you really absorb those by writing them down!
Step Five: Live a Life Worth Living.
At the end of the day, cancer sucks. But if we can reflect on our experience as a learning opportunity and as a place for growth, we can give cancer a big fat middle finger and move on to thrive in our lives.
-Alona Metz, Founder and Executive Director of Thrivacious, Cancer Thriver.