In my last post we talked about trauma: an event that upends assumptions you had about how the world works. It’s like losing your compass during a storm at sea. The waters eventually calm down, but you’ve got no idea which way is home.
By that definition, a cancer diagnosis can definitely be a trauma.
Your medical team holds you up as you crawl through treatment. But once you’re released, there’s no longer a hand to hold. It’s as if the crew drowned along with the compass. You’re on your own to navigate home.
You’re not really sure which direction to choose. But you also can’t stay where you are. Your survivor instinct kicks in, and you start sailing the best you can.
At first you despair over the loss of your compass and crew. But with time, you learn what resources are available to guide you. You become familiar with the positions of the sun and the stars. Every breeze carries messages about which direction is safe and where bad weather may be brewing.
Debris on the surface of the water may make it harder going. And then one day you realize that the debris came from somewhere…and may be a clue to where you’re headed.
You notice you’re learning a lot…although you wish it didn’t take so darn long!
What if I told you that that’s just the way it’s supposed to be?
You’re probably familiar with the term “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. In PTSD, reminders of trauma keep recurring in the form of dreams, or triggering sights, sounds or smells. They keep the person who experienced the trauma in a perpetual state of high anxiety. A small percentage of cancer survivors experience PTSD, and in that situation it’s important to seek expert treatment.
But that’s not the vast majority of survivors. You’re likely to be experiencing a less acknowledged but far more common result of trauma: post-traumatic growth (PTG).
PTG is about finding meaning and benefit in a traumatic experience. It allows the trauma to expand you as a human being.
It happens when you say “what happened to me was really hard, but maybe there’s something in the experience that can make the rest of my life easier.”
It happens when you say “I miss the people who used to support me, and I’d still love some support. How can I find someone willing and able to support me in a way that works for both of us?”
It happens when you say “I see I can’t go back to the way things were…but maybe I can replace them with something better?”
Whether the idea of growing as a result of cancer encourages or aggravates you, here’s something you should know: post-traumatic growth is a hot topic of current research, because it’s associated with significantly lower levels of anxiety and distress in cancer survivors, and in those who care for them.
We’ll talk more about growing after trauma in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you:
- What’s the most important thing you’ve learned so far from your cancer experience?
- Is there some part of this experience you can’t find anything positive about, no matter how you look at it? Which part is that? How are you feeling about it?