I'm Not Going Back To Normal After Surviving Cancer Twice

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

I am within a few weeks of being done with chemotherapy, and I admit I’m facing a mix of emotions. I’m thrilled, of course, to get past this chapter of my breast cancer journey. However, I’m also scared of my future. I’ve been down this road before. This is my second breast cancer battle.

Part of me wants to pop open some champagne and ring the golden bell — obnoxiously loud — at the treatment center, while the other part of me knows that I will be dealing with the post-cancer haze for some time. After all, just because you’re no longer a breast cancer fighter and switch to being a survivor, doesn’t mean you haven’t faced tremendous trauma that leaves an imprint on your heart, your mind, and your soul. Any person who has had a traumatic experience knows what I’m talking about. There’s no getting back to normal after trauma.

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is defined as “an emotional response to a terrible event.” They go on to name possibilities including “an accident, rape or natural disaster.” They remark that immediately following the traumatic event, “shock and denial are typical.” Then comes the later reactions such as “unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.”

That alone sounds difficult enough, but then some of us live with post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD “is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it.” Symptoms include some of the same as trauma, but they linger for months or years. If the symptoms “interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD.”

When you’ve faced serious trauma, you don’t just “move past” or “get over” what happened to you. It’s forever part of your story. However, the expectation is that being cancer free means I’m going to frolic in a proverbial field of sunshine and rainbows. I should appreciate every moment, because it is a gift, right?

I absolutely am thankful for this second chance. Well, in my case, it’s the third chance. Third time’s a charm, right? I hope so. That’s the goal. But cancer never really leaves you even when it’s actually been eradicated by surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation. Cancer, as I often say, is a beast, a jerk, a liar, and a thief. All trauma is. Whether your trauma is medically induced like mine, or you’ve witnessed something horrific, experienced sexual or physical assault, lived through abuse, lose a loved one, or any other trauma, you know what I mean.

The toxic positivity that those who have faced trauma encounter can be its own trauma. Hear me out. People have said to me that God only gives the toughest battles to the strongest people. So what they are saying is that God looked down from heaven and was like, there’s Rachel! She’d be perfect for two cancer battles. She can handle it, because she’s so strong. See how ridiculous that is? If you’ve been through trauma, I’m certain that you have also had someone say something equally as terrible to you. They may have good intentions, but their comments are dismissive, superficial, and frankly, devastating, only adding another roadblock to our already difficult journey.

I’ve been told to stay strong and stay positive, and frankly, doing both isn’t always a choice. I do believe that our outlook is often in our control, but when you get knocked down a thousand times, it is really, really hard to get back up with a genuine smile on your face and a victorious, pumping fist. Instead, you slowly stand up again and wait for the next punch.

I have a solid plan in place. I will continue therapy, and I plan to start EMDR to see if that will help me navigate the medical trauma I’ve faced. Having your breasts removed and being told your chance of recurrence is around 2%, only to get cancer again, is nothing short of horrifying. I fully plan to deal with the reality of my situation, continue to build resistance, and navigate what was and what could be.

Instead of trying to “get back to normal,” I plan to create a new normal. Yes, I want all the peace and serenity I can find, but I know I have to work for these. A person who has been through hell doesn’t just go from constant fight-flight-freeze to zen. There are a thousand steps from here to there. I’m not going to just wake up one day, throw off the comforter, and bound through life with a carefree spirit. I’ve been conditioned for years to be on guard and on edge.

Post-chemo life will no doubt involve a mix of both hope and anxiety. I look forward to my hair filling in and for some of the side effects of the drugs to dissipate. I also know that I have to gear up for radiation and continued immunotherapy, which means more doctor’s appointments, labs, scans, and treatments. All the while, I have to cope with the roller coaster of emotions that have become my default.

If you’ve struggled with trauma or believe you have PTSD, there’s hope. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, you should have a discussion with your doctor about your options. They suggest physical activity for stress reduction, chunking your tasks so you’re less overwhelmed, spending time with trusted individuals, anticipating realistic symptom reduction, and, of course, therapy to work through the trauma.

The journey to healing is not easy, but for me, it’s far better than staying stuck in the trauma zone. No matter how many times and ways I’ve tried to avoid the stress of “back then,” it always comes back. Therefore, the path forward is to work through the difficulties, honor my progress, and hopefully gain insight that brings about more peace.

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