Cancer PTSD Triggers: 5 Steps for What to do When They Blindside You

by | Oct 16, 2020 | Latest News, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Health | 0 comments

I was substitute teaching at a school today that I don’t go to very often. There is a subconscious reason for that, I’m realizing now. 

I was on my way there this morning, and this crazy sense of dejavu came over me. Not just dejavu, where you can see in your mind yourself doing before exactly what you are now; it was an emotional dejavu too, and it was anxiety and fear. I realized, driving along the road to the school, that this was the school I was teaching summer school at when I was diagnosed. The feelings I was feeling were the emotions I felt that day, driving from school to go get my biopsy results. It just felt so familiar, but in a bad, scary-movie, “Don’t go in there!” kind of way. In fact, it was like watching a movie; I could see and feel it so clearly, except I was in the movie and not just watching it. I had pushed this connection so far down that I had completely forgotten it was the same school when I accepted the job this morning.

My heart started to race. My eyes started to well. It was that same feeling of helplessness and panic and despair that I felt all day at school the day after my results; that feeling of being on the edge of tears and fighting it, unsuccessfully. I can feel it now while I write this. I actually considered for a brief and wild moment calling the school and cancelling the job. But thankfully, I’ve been practicing my mental health supports and anxiety-battling tools for three years now, and I want to share with you what my process is in these moments. 

Cancer PTSD is REAL, and it’s not something that we talk about very much at all. I don’t know if it’s because we feel like once we’re well we should just get on with our lives, or it could be that we feel guilty for continuing to bring up the fear and anxiety that will stay with us long after treatment and recovery, afraid that we are being a burden on those around us or that we’re bringing them down or that they will think we’re wallowing or, or, or… But whatever the reason is that we don’t discuss it, know that you are definitely not alone, and definitely don’t think that you shouldn’t be feeling the way that you are, because “Evidence suggests that a substantial proportion of people with cancer might experience their diagnosis and treatment as traumatic” [1]. So, your feelings are entirely valid – not that you needed science to tell you that, but sometimes we feel like we need to justify where we’re coming from.

When our PTSD, or just general cancer fear and anxiety, get triggered, it can be debilitating if we don’t know how to deal with it. So, if you don’t already have a process of your own, here is what I do. 

1. First things first, breathe! It will physiologically break you out of that stress response. When our fight-or-flight response is triggered by a stressful event, we start to breathe more rapidly in our body’s attempt to get more oxygen to our muscles and our heart. By breathing slowly and deeply, it actually tells our brain that there isn’t a threat, otherwise we wouldn’t be breathing like this. It will pretty quickly start to calm those stressful emotions. 


2. Let yourself feel the emotions. Cry, yell, hit a pillow, just let it out. And then, walk yourself through the emotions, really thinking about what’s stimulating them, to find the root of where they are coming from. Give them the attention they deserve and do not simply push them aside; trauma needs to be approached and not hidden from. I find this process also takes me out of the emotional reaction and puts me into an analytical state instead; it stops the negative emotional spiral by making me curious about it and taking me outside of it to look in, instead of being trapped inside it.


3. Remind yourself of where you are now. I like to tell myself, “You are safe, you are okay. Things are different now, I am different now, and now is NOT then.” Feel free to take that, or come up with a mantra of your own that feels reassuring to you. I also like to remind myself here of all that I am doing to keep myself healthy like diet changes, exercise, Vitamin C IVs, mistletoe, saunas, enemas, supplements, etc. It helps to quell the anxiety monster. 


4. Then, I like to do what I’m doing now, write about the experience. I go through what triggered it, what it felt like, and what I did to calm myself so that I become more and more aware of my current emotions surrounding cancer and which ways of addressing them are working best for me. This may not be writing for you; it may be recording a voice diary or a video, talking with a loved one or therapist, creating a piece of art that expresses how you were feeling and how you are feeling now, going for a walk and simply reflecting on the experience and your process (or lack of a process) for dealing with it, or any number of activities that facilitate this reflection and this processing for you.


5. And finally, do something that makes you feel good! Acknowledge that you have just gone through something difficult and give yourself permission to decompress from it. Watch your favourite movie or TV show, read a good book, have your favourite treat (sugar-free, or maybe this is one of those times that you let yourself cheat 😊), call a friend, take it a little easier at work or really dive in (whichever helps you most), spend some time on your favourite hobby, dance, sing, play with your furry roomates; whatever it is that gets you in that feel-good mood, do it!


Dealing with trauma is scary as H-E-double-hockey-sticks. BUT, if we don’t face these emotions and allow ourselves to process them in a healthy way, they will just keep coming back around, like a bad ex. And you absolutely do not need to go through this process alone. I highly encourage you to find a counsellor or therapist who can support you in this next part of your cancer experience if you feel that it’s right for you. I’m a strong believer that everyone, cancer survivor or not, can benefit from therapy, and there is NO shame in asking for help. If you have any tips of your own for dealing with cancer PTSD, please leave a comment below or join us in the Solis Cancer Community Facebook group and share them there! Now, I’m off to try and follow my own advice 😊

Happy Healing ❤️


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