Trauma, Cancer, and Hope

Trauma

A good friend spent part of her weekend doing some reading on trauma for work and discovered the acronym H.O.P.E. standing for the phrase Hold On Pain Ends. She knows I have tremendous faith in the transformative power of hope. Holding on and believing that all will be well again is a wonderful feeling and vision for healing.

Many people think of trauma as it relates to military personnel who return from active duty with PTSD. People who have been in accidents, suffered abuse, had violence directed at them, witnessed atrocities, been through disasters, lost loved ones, and have been through (or continue to go through) an illness also can be diagnosed with PTSD. Any negative event can cause trauma.

Cancer and Trauma

PTSD is a mental health condition that develops after exposure to a traumatic event. Cancer survivors have experienced their fair share of traumatic events. Painful and emotionally stressful tests, treatments, receiving bad news, hard emotions to process, and living with chronic or painful physical issues are possible sources of trauma. Looking in the mirror at a changed body, living with lymphedema, and having the pain of neuropathy are daily reminders for some people. Fear of recurrence may always be on a person’s mind. Some anxiety is normal and quite frankly unavoidable for cancer patients and survivors. When these feelings persist or worsen, it could be a sign of ongoing trauma. Symptoms may include things like nightmares, trouble concentrating, feeling fearful, guilty, angry, avoiding things that trigger bad memories, and loss of interest in people or activities you used to enjoy. Other possibilities may also cause these.

I believe seeking professional help is the best approach to address working through trauma. Sharing what is painful can help identify the root cause whether the pain is physical or emotional. Effective solutions can be tailored to a person’s specific needs. Speaking to family, friends, or support groups are other possible choices. Even writing it out can be helpful in sorting out what you think and how you feel as a pathway to ending pain.

Hope

My thoughts keep coming back to that acronym about holding on because pain ends. Hope is hope. How else can a person take an active role in feeling physically and mentally healthier? No official trauma labels need to be involved. Everyone has times where something painful is experienced. I am not a mental health professional, but nonetheless have a few thoughts to share for dealing with pain. I think of it as a way to Help Other People Excel. I can’t say that’s original. I also can’t find a source to credit.

Pain can be a teacher.

Sometimes I need to experience pain and sit with it so I know what not to do. When I’m sore, my body is often bringing something to my attention. I may need to rest. Maybe I’m doing a movement incorrectly. Possibly I’m using new muscles and my body is thanking me for using them but reminding me to do so gradually. I’m also being taught something if I experience emotional pain. Every experience teaches me something, even the ones I find emotionally difficult. You can’t ignore physical or emotional pain. Both get worse if you do. Listen to your body.

Grief is allowed.

You can’t just “get over” things. Just as with the grief when someone passes, many events can still be a passing of something and involve grieving. Again, just as with the grief when someone passes, it comes in waves. One day you are just fine with not working and having a flexible schedule, and the next day this very same thing has you in tears all day. Some insensitive comments leave you unfazed, and then there are others that you believe are beyond cruel that echo over and over again. Some grieve body parts. There are many things you “used to” do that now no longer exist. Those who have had cancer have lost a lot. There can be unexpected spurts of grief that come at the worst times. It’s normal. Allowing yourself time to feel feelings will eventually lead to more good days than bad.

Find a new focus.

Starting something new gives an opportunity to move forward with something different. Fresh starts have their merits. It could be a new hobby or interest. I have mentioned before that working out has turned into a positive focus for me. I also have more time to write. Maybe it’s something bigger like a new job, relationship, home, or city. Change may be exactly what is needed. If nothing else, change serves as a good distraction. Everyone needs a break from whatever makes life harder.

Exercise.

Here is my repetitive plug for exercise. Physical activity can help you see you are stronger than you know. This helps physically and emotionally. I have a long ways to go to make myself even stronger, but I’m stronger than I used to be. Exercise helps me feel more confident and in control. It makes me feel good. I feel less stressed. Exercise provides an opportunity for me to work on my inner strength while I work on improving my body. Finding and reclaiming power by moving is extremely therapeutic. Work with a punching bag is a very effective way to reclaim power.

Get outside.

The effects of being outdoors for me are similar to exercising. It makes me feel good and less stressed just like exercise does. Fresh air and nature calms me. Problems often sort themselves out as I spend time in the woods. My head always feels clearer. Maybe it’s because nature is grounding. If you do not have access to a handy outdoor source like a park, farm, or green spaces, something as small as a garden plot can give you the opportunity to dig, to let dirt fall through your fingers, to weed, to plant, and to watch something new grow. Container gardening has become very popular in areas where green space is limited. This is also a great option if you have some physical limitations. Sitting in the shade with a refreshing lemonade and reading a good book still counts as getting outside.

Forgiveness.

Forgive yourself for past actions. I have heard a lot of people say how important it is to forgive others, show universal love and kindness, speak positively, and have at least one good friend you can count on. All important. Even more important is to forgive yourself, love yourself, have positive self-talk, and be your own friend. I have been pretty hard on myself and now I am much kinder. I believe pain can end when we treat ourselves like we treat others. Each day is a new opportunity to treat yourself well with kindness and forgiveness. Reset every morning.

Believe.

Believe in hope. Expect the best. Hope begets hope. For me, things always come back to my unwavering belief in hope. One of my favorite hope quotes reads:

“When the world says,

‘Give up,’

Hope whispers,

‘Try it one more time.’ “   – Unknown

I love that the source is unknown. It somehow makes it even more appealing to me. It’s as if there is an anonymous and universal whisper that could be from anyone anywhere in the world. The whisper may be a gentle hush. I like thinking of it that way. I see it in the flame of a candle. I hear it when a bird sings. I feel it with good friends. I find it in some of my favorite places. You know where some of those places are if you know me well.

Here is one of my favorite places where I hear the hush. Can you hear it, too?

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Author Anne Lamott describes a hush as something sacred. Hope whispers softly and pushes us to keep trying. Hope as a hush is sacred indeed. Pain ends. Hope remains. It can replace pain and grow exponentially. I continue to listen to the whispers of hope.

Scanxiety

I have had more MRIs in my life than I can count. Some yielding good news that spots were getting more and more difficult to see. Others showed minimal growth, which medically was read as consistent and stable. Sometimes I stayed with the current treatment protocol and sometimes it meant beginning something unknown to me.

Almost every MRI for me brought on its share of anxiety because I have some degree of claustrophobia. Waiting for results also brings its share of stress. The machine itself is long and tubular with enough room to slide an average sized body in and out. It doesn’t look too impossible when I’m standing outside of it and plucking up my courage. Things change when the technicians strap me in, give me a panic ball to squeeze since they’ll be in a different room for the test, and roll me into the tube. Suddenly, I am alone. My vision is limited to sterile white and I can see only an inch or two above my face. I can’t get out on my own and that’s when the trapped feeling starts growing. The strapped in part is so unsettling for me. Breathing is going to be impossible in there, especially when I am to listen to instructions on when to breathe, hold my breath, and then relax. A contrast dye is shot into me that makes my heart and pulse race. It makes me feel a little sick, and then I hear the “take a breath” prompt. Sometimes I just can’t get it done in time because of my racing heart, which makes me feel like I’ve screwed up the most informative part of the test. Panic, panic, panic. I’m stressed out. It goes downhill from there. Much to my surprise, the test always gathers usable information.

I have heard from a few people lately who have been nervous about scans and various tests. I doubt how I’ve described things for me has lessened those feelings for them. Sorry. Others haven’t been reassuring or helpful either from what’s been shared. Instead anxiety levels have risen as “friends” have told them how awful these things are. Do they really feel this is helpful? Newsflash – it isn’t! Saying something is hard is honest. You can still be honest by providing a couple of reassuring comments.

My hope is something that I share about how I’ve dealt with scans, tests, etc. will be helpful for anyone with scanxiety. Scans have gotten easier with each passing one. I know that it’s going to be tough to catch my breath after the contrast injection and I can mentally prepare for it. If it takes me an extra second or two to start a breath hold, that’s what I now do and I don’t worry about it. The following are things that work for me, and they may work for others.

Tip #1: I like music piped in to relax me. This is a common practice. However, if music is unavailable I know what songs I can sing through in my head to pass the time.

Tip #2: I like a washcloth over my eyes with just a peeking place available so I still know where I am without having to be reminded the whole time.

Tip #3: Lavender essential oil on gauze placed on my chest provides enough aromatherapy for a calming effect. I suggest bringing your own if you are unsure if your facility provides this for patients.

Tip #4: Having the same technicians has a calming effect on me, too. My favorite tech actually hugs me when she sees me and that lets me know I am in a safe place. I also like a lot of communication and encouragement while I’m in the machine. It’s good for me to know when I’m halfway done and when I’m close to finishing.

Tip #5: Sometimes I try to reframe the overwhelming, closed in, trapped feeling with one where the machine is my own little personal cocoon where I am kept snuggly and protected for a short time. It’s a great place for prayers. I call on loved ones, spirits, and angels to be with me and protect me. Those are very warm and comforting thoughts.

Tip #6: It goes a lot easier if I take the time to have my port accessed beforehand than just settle for multiple arm pokes that are more like a hit and miss game of find a vein. Using my port doesn’t make my heart race or feel sick when the contrast dye is administered.

Tip #7: In general, the breath holds go much better if I count very slowly in my head until they are done. Some holds are short, some are up to thirty seconds. The long holds do get hard for me, but the counting lets me know that they have to be almost over.

Tip #8: Lorazepam. I have proven that I can get through MRIs without any extra drug help at all. I know I can do it if I have to, relying only on my other tips. The lorazepam relaxes me enough so I am both calmer, fully functional, and happier feeling in general.

Tip #9: I don’t find it helpful to tell people about upcoming scans. There are too many questions. It is so much easier for me to relax on my own before and after the test, and if anything needs to be shared later, later it is. There really isn’t a need to share when nothing really changes. If you get support from sharing scheduled tests with a lot of people, that is your choice based on the kind of support system you have.

Tip #10: Remember the goal of an MRI is to provide information about your health. I need the information – good or not so good – because either way it determines what choices are best so I can maintain a healthy lifestyle. My mother wasn’t open to MRIs and many other tests because of claustrophobia. I believe there also were other fear based and avoidant based thinking happening. Not knowing sadly didn’t work out well for her. I miss her terribly. She and I have many similarities, but as hard as it is for me, I have to get the tests so I know what’s what.

I know what to expect after so many of these. This is a place where I’ve become very vocal about what I need – the music, the lavender, the washcloth, the encouraging words and announcements throughout. I always take extra good care of myself afterwards, whether it’s a treat on the drive home, or a long walk where I can decompress and appreciate being free from the MRI machine.

All these scans would be a much better time if I could find a way to make sure every scan provides the kind of results I need and want. In the meantime, I have found a way get through them with less dread and a little more ease.

Scans are just one example of what causes people anxiety. Everyone has something that they find difficult to do or causes them to worry. Anxiety is often worse than the event itself. After you’ve done it, you realize it wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe you’ve even developed a few hacks on your own that help you cope or dismiss your anxiety and stress entirely.

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Whether brought on by medical stuff or other anxiety triggers you have in your life, what helps you lessen anxiety?