Once you’ve had cancer (or any other negative experience), you never know what’s going to trigger a flashback. Recently, I had such an experience. I was shocked on two fronts. I was shocked that it even happened and I was shocked by the intensity of the emotions that came with it.
A few days ago I went to the hospital with my husband so that he could have a test done that would require him to have general anaesthetic. The wait time for the procedure (two hours) and the procedure itself (45 minutes) meant I was going to be at the hospital for about three hours. Ironically, the doctor started the procedure early and finished the faster than expected. As a result, the person who was going to drive us home was still about 30 minutes away when I was told I could take my husband home.
To wait for the ride and my husband to come out of recovery, a nurse took me to this room (alcove really), where there were two banks of about four or five chairs. The chairs were green recliners and there were two of sitting in those chairs. While sitting in a recliner may seem like a relaxing experience, nothing could be further from the truth.
Shortly after I sat down I started to breathe faster with quick, shallow breaths. I started to cry. It was not sobbing crying, but it was enough for me to wonder if the person sitting in the room with me could see that I was in distress. She never commented, so I guess I was panicking quietly.
I didn’t understand it. It came out of nowhere. I knew my husband was fine because I had been told that I could take him home. There was no reason to be anxious in that regard. It took me a second or two to try and pinpoint why I felt so panicked. Finally, it dawned on me. It was the green recliners.
Now I don’t have a general fear of green recliners. I grew up in a house with a green recliner. I can walk in a furniture store and sit in a green recliner, but this time the recliner meant something special to me.
This time I was sitting in a green recliner at a medical facility. I suddenly realized that it felt similar to the “chemo suite” (their term not mine), where I went for eight chemo treatments over the course of 16 weeks.
Every two weeks I sat in a green recliner while I was hooked up to my IVs. There were other people sitting in similar-looking green recliners and there were rows of these chairs on either side of the room. It was a much larger room than the one I was waiting in, and there were a lot more people, but the feeling was the same. In fact, I think I felt more relaxed in the chemo suite than I felt in this waiting room. I don’t know if it was because I was in a different mindset when I had cancer (do whatever was necessary to get rid of it) or if the medication given in conjunction with the chemo helped to take off some of the edge.
As my feeling of panic continued, I tried to calm myself and do some deep breathing. I tried to tell myself that I could deal with this. It was just a chair. This was not the chemo suite and, with a little luck, I wouldn’t be using the chemo suite again. While I understood the logic, the emotional component was very strong. I couldn’t seem to get things under control. I debated about going to sit back in the other waiting room. I debated about whether or not to ask the nurse if there was someplace else I could sit. I debated, but I didn’t take any action. I just sat there.
Ultimately, the decision was made for me. A nurse wheeled my husband out to me in a wheelchair and he was the distraction I needed. I, at least temporarily, was fine again. I forgot about the chairs and focused on my husband and the text messages from the person coming to pick us up.
When we got home and I was by myself again, I started thinking about my experience at the hospital. Just thinking about that experience brought tears to my eyes again. I could feel that same sense of panic, but without those green recliners my reaction was a lot less intense. The next day, when I was telling my co-worker about the experience, she could tell that it still bothered me.
The whole experience blindsided me. I had been at the hospital on other occasions waiting for other people who were having surgery, but I never had a problem. The difference was that this was the first time I was told to sit in that area with the green recliners. Even though my cancer treatments were in 2011, the setting made it feel like it was only yesterday.
I have had a flashback of sorts when I have to go to the cancer centre to see my oncologist. Every time I enter that building and have to register and get a bracelet with my name and date of birth on it, I have a flashback to coming to the building for all my treatments and each time being required to recite my name and date of birth. In this situation, it was wearing the bracelet that triggered my anxiety. Outwardly I looked calm. There were no tears or shallow breathing. But when I got close to the door to leave, I pulled on that bracelet like it was physically causing me pain.
Initially, I tried to rip it off (darn plastic coating). When that didn’t work, I tried to use my teeth to hold it while I pulled with my free hand. That didn't work. Ultimately, I ran over to someone and asked them to cut the bracelet off. I was not going to wear that bracelet for the 20-minute ride home. It brought back too many bad memories. It felt oppressive and represented a place I never wanted to go again. Every time I return to the cancer centre, I make sure there is no bracelet on my wrist when I leave the building. I have also improved my technique so I don't need to use my teeth or scissors to remove the bracelet.
It’s not until you have an experience like this that you truly appreciate the strong feelings that you associate with the cancer experience. You keep the fear of recurrence in check so that you can get on with your life as part of your new normal, but the emotions tied to that fear surface quickly when:
I always believed that I was okay and never panicked during my treatments. Six years later, I find out that while I was okay, I may not have been as fine as I thought. With this newfound knowledge I still have to push the fear of recurrence aside. I have to believe that I'll be okay until proven otherwise. That was my mantra while I was going through tests and getting results. It worked then and it works now...at least most of the time.
Over 30-years of writing experience, over five years as a cancer survivor, and a lifetime purveyor of wit and laughter.