How I Learned to Manage Life After Experiencing PTSD After Cancer


This is the third and final installment of a series of essays on post-traumatic stress after cancer, which I began experiencing in December of 2012, just short of two years after my cancer diagnosis. 

PTSD will hollow you out inside.

After these fires had raged inside of me for six solid weeks there was nothing left of me but smoldering piles of rubble. My mind was scattered into a million pieces on the ground and I hadn’t a clue on what was supposed to go where, nor what the final picture was even supposed to look like. I was just gutted. As much as my life changed after being diagnosed with cancer, it changed just as much, if not more, after I started experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder in the years after cancer.

In Part 1 of these essays, I described what post-traumatic stress felt like to experience, and in Part II I described the various things I did to cope with and recover from it. In this final essay, I’m sharing the things I’ve done to manage my life after experiencing post-traumatic stress after cancer.

1. Post-traumatic stress is not what’s wrong with you, it’s what’s right.

If your home burned to the ground and you lost everything and only narrowly escaped with your life, you can’t tell me the smell of smoke or the sound of a fire engine coming down the road wouldn’t make you cringe and possibly want to run out the door. This is a normal, healthy reaction to traumatic events in our lives.

Human beings haven’t evolved over billions of years to our position of dominance on our planet because we have poor instincts. We actually have extremely powerful instincts, and post-traumatic stress represents our protective instincts kicking in, trying to remove us from harm and situations that are perceived as threatening.

You should never feel ashamed if something or someone that reminds you of a traumatic event makes you feel afraid months or even years after the traumatic experience. It matters not whether it was a house fire, a plane crash, a war, or fighting cancer; when we experience things that remind us of our past traumatic experiences, it’s the same protective instincts that kick in, trying to remove us from perceived harm.

If something or someone reminds you of a traumatic experience, you’re supposed to be afraid, you’re supposed to want to run away, or hide or fight back. Post-traumatic stress isn’t what’s wrong with you, it’s what’s right. It’s a sign that all is well and that your mind is working exactly as it should be.

2. Post-traumatic stress is not “PTSD.”

There’s a huge problem out in the world with how post-traumatic stress is perceived. Post-traumatic stress after a traumatic event, such as fighting cancer, is very normal. Such episodes might last anywhere from an hour to a few days, or maybe a week. Full blown post-traumatic stress disorder is when you have all of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress for extended periods of time, several weeks or more, and that never seem to let up even after being removed from the stimulus that had triggered the post-traumatic stress episode.

This is a very serious situation that requires professional help or treatment, but because any sort of post-traumatic stress is generically only referred to as PTSD, some people might be more reluctant to seek the help and support that they need.

Rest assured that feelings of post-traumatic stress after cancer are very normal to experience and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. These are self-protective instincts coming to the surface, trying to remove ourselves from situations that have been perceived as threatening.

3. Accept what you’re feeling.

The extreme feelings of fear and anxiety that post-traumatic stress can cause us to experience come from our subconscious and thus, we have no conscious control over such feelings. We can’t just tell ourselves to not be afraid. All we can control is how we consciously react to these subconscious feelings and instincts that come to the surface. We can beat ourselves up and berate ourselves for being afraid when we feel like we shouldn’t be, but this is denying ourselves. We’re hurting inside, and beating ourselves up just makes things even worse.

A far better approach is to simply accept what we’re feeling without criticism or judgment. Instead of criticizing yourself for being afraid, simply accept that you’re afraid and try to find healthy and productive outlets to channel those feelings into. Write about how you feel or dump this energy into an exercise routine, for example.

4. Stay close to your coping routines.

As suddenly as the post-traumatic stress mechanism in our minds can be switched off, it can also switch back on again. Thus, it’s very important to stay close to whatever routines you’ve developed to help manage your post-traumatic stress. I took to running as a form of therapy to help manage mine, and I always made sure my running shoes and clothes were prepped and ready to go so that there wouldn’t be any delays (should I suddenly need to go for a run).

If I’d come home from lunch dealing with PTSD issues in my mind and didn’t have my running gear ready to go, that’s 30 minutes wasted trying to track everything down with  terrible, panicking, freewheeling energy burning me up inside. It’s best to have ready-to-go “turn key” coping methods at your disposal that you don’t even have to think about, whenever the need arises.

Stay close to your coping routines.

5. Stay close to people that bring you comfort.

As important as it is to stay close to whatever routines you’ve developed to help you cope with your post-traumatic stress, it’s just as important to stay close to the friends and people who help you to cope as well.

Most people in my life genuinely cared about me but just didn’t know quite what to do for me or how to support me. Post-traumatic stress was just as foreign for them as it was for me, and some tended to shy away simply because they didn’t want to cause any harm. There was a highly select group of people who just “got me” in some way, as though there were a very deep soulful connection in play that just engaged naturally when I needed it to.

With or without having ever experienced anything I had or not, these friends of mine have always known what to say and do, and not once have they ever run afoul of me or done anything that’s come even close to upsetting me in the years I’ve now known them. These are the people I needed to spend my time with because they helped me feel normal and at ease and gave me a break from this terrible hurricane in my mind.

To have friends and people in my life that could help me forget all I was in the midst of during such a terrible storm was an unbelievably great gift and blessing to have. These select friends of mine know who they are today, and it’s a very deep and soulful love I have for them.

6. Never stop living and enjoying life.

Don’t ever let post-traumatic stress keep you down and stop you from enjoying life. As I wrote in PTSD Part II, I pushed hard against the boundaries that post-traumatic stress was trying to keep me within and made sure to get out with friends I felt fully comfortable around. This is why it’s so important to have or find friends who really get you — even if you don’t understand how or why.

Go with what feels right, even if you don’t understand. These friends of mine helped rescue me from the inner turmoil in my mind and allowed me to keep busy, active, and enjoying life, even during these times of great distress. The best way to survive cancer, is to live!

7. Find little things to enjoy every day.

When I was experiencing post-traumatic stress I felt like an endangered species and like my life was being threatened every day. As those of us who have experienced this have felt, post-traumatic stress can feel like you’re walking around with a loaded gun pointed at your head constantly. You feel like a marked man, and the level of stress I felt from this were unlike anything I had ever experienced in life — even while fighting cancer!

Weekend activities with family and friends and vacation planning wasn’t enough. I needed to find little things I could enjoy every day and that gave me some sense of comfort and happiness. You have to eat every day, so why not eat well? Treat yourself daily.

I’ve become a well-known foodie to friends and post all sorts of food pictures over social media and especially Instagram (when I had almost never done so before). I tried to pinpoint the time I really got into food and became a foodie, only to realize this was born out of my post-traumatic stress and my desire to find things I could enjoy in life every day — no matter how small.

A nice “last meal” every day because at the time, I felt like it could be.

8. The importance of self-love.

For years I lectured myself and beat myself up for being afraid when logically I knew there was no reason to be. I had a highly curable stage II cancer. I went through a chemotherapy protocol that was a virtual guarantee of being cured and then did the retroperitoneal lymph node dissection surgery on top of that for good measure. If there was even one stupid little sub-detectable cancer cell floating around my body after four rounds of chemotherapy, I just wanted it gone.

I know what the stats are; I’ve read the medical literature. Almost no one who had a stage II testicular cancer that does both primary chemotherapy and the RPLND surgery ever experiences a recurrence, yet I was still so afraid and terrified.

Allow yourself to be. Don’t fight yourself! Love yourself by accepting what you feel without judgment or criticism. Beating yourself up for what you feel just compounds the pain and makes things worse, and your subconscious will never let go of what it feels. Stop denying it.

Love yourself, forgive yourself, accept your feelings and work with them rather than against them. Be your own best friend.

9. Find something to believe in.

My lack of firm spiritual beliefs ended up being another source of pain and difficulty for me in the aftermath of my cancer, and especially while dealing with post-traumatic stress. What makes the aftermath of cancer so terrifying? It’s because we fear our cancers will return and that we’ll die. Firming up my spiritual beliefs helped to take the wind out of the sails of my fears of death, which in turn helped me to stop being afraid.

We live in a society today that seemingly shuns religion and spiritual beliefs and looks upon them with contempt. Yet it’s my own independent spiritual beliefs that I fully developed and embraced that helped me to overcome my post-traumatic stress issues and fears of dying of cancer. In the world we live in today where mental health is at the forefront, why are we shunning and vilifying things such as religions and spiritual beliefs that can help us feel more at peace?

I feel this is a huge mistake. If you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress but don’t have firm spiritual beliefs, reconsider why you don’t. The lack of such beliefs might actually be contributing to the very anxiety you’re experiencing. This was the case with me.

10. Time does heal.

I’ve been asked this and I don’t think you can ever completely heal or cure yourself from post-traumatic stress, but it can get easier with time. Once you’ve been through a traumatic event or two in your life and associations are made that trigger these fiercely protective self-preserving instincts, it can be difficult — if not impossible — to break them.

That said, I have broken some associations with extreme difficulty, but to this day I don’t think I could casually walk back to the infusion lab of my oncologist’s office to say hi to some of the wonderful nurses I know back there without breaking out into a nervous sweat or my heart rate jumping through the roof. The mere thought of it sends shivers down my body, and that’s still post-traumatic stress in the background. I’d have to do something to break that association. I can’t un-experience all of the hell I’ve been through fighting cancer, such that the associations were never made in the first place.

As time has gone on the post-traumatic stress reactions have become much less intense, my subconscious has seemingly become a bit more trusting of my conscious ability to keep myself out of danger, and plenty of positive memories made in the passing years has helped to write over the painful memories of the past.

Another thing I had feared: never really getting to live and enjoy my life. I’ve done that and then some in the past few years, and this has brought me a great sense of peace and comfort as well.

The best you can do is love yourself, care for yourself, forgive yourself, be your own best friend and cope as best you possibly can. Finding the help you need, the friends that know how to support you and make you feel right, hobbies and activities that serve as effective outlets and keep you present and engaged as much as possible, are all a part of the “cure” for post-traumatic stress.

collage of man with testicular cancer experiencing life

There’s a reason why the photo above appears on my homepage, as it represents all of the above in one photo. An enjoyable activity with my family and with friends that just get me, and who have always made me feel right.

This post was originally published on StevePake.com.

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