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  • Debbie Kerr

PTSD triggers after cancer treatments

Once you’ve had cancer, you never know what’s going to trigger a flashback to your treatment days. On July 17th (about six years after my cancer treatments), I had such an experience and it shocked me to not only experience it, but to have a reaction that was so strong. Eventually, I figured out that I had a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) associated with my cancer treatments.

Trigger - Green recliner

I went to the hospital with my husband so that he could have a test done that would require him to have a general anaesthetic. The wait time for the whole 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 we were ready to leave the hospital before we expected (unheard of in my vast experience at hospitals). As a result, the person who was going to give us a ride home was still about 30 minutes away when I was told I could take my husband home.

To wait for our ride and my husband to come out of recovery, a nurse took me to a room, which was a smaller version of the waiting room where I had been sitting in with a few key differences. There were only two of us in this room (curtained area) and there were two short rows of green recliners. The reclines may have seemed like a step up from the chairs in the first waiting room, but they made things more uncomfortable for me.

Shortly after I sat down, I started to breathe faster with quick, shallow breaths. I started to cry. It was not sobbing or ugly 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 I realized, it was the green recliners. It was a PTSD trigger.

Now I don’t have a general fear of green recliners. I grew up in a home with a green recliner. I can walk into a furniture store and sit in a green recliner, but this experience was different.

I was sitting in a green recliner at a medical facility. There were two rows of chairs. One row was on each side of this so-called room. 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 some of the edge off.  

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 going into any chemo suite again. I couldn’t seem to get things under control.  I debated about going to sit back in the other waiting room. I debated about asking 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. They wheeled my husband out so that he was once again with me; 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 I got home and was by myself, 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 the green chairs, the impact was a lot less intense.

The whole experience blind-sided 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, it felt like it was only yesterday.

Trigger - Cancer centre and bracelet

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 suddenly needed to remove the bracelet like it was physically causing me pain.

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 at it with my free hand (sorry for the visual). That didn't work. After several attempts and the anxiety increasing, 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 drive it would take me to get home. It brought back too many bad memories. It felt oppressive and represented a place I never wanted to go again.

The first time this happened, it was a total surprise to me. I never thought that a hospital bracelet could provoke such a strong reaction. Now that I knew, I made sure I improved my technique so that I no longer needed my teeth or scissors to remove my bracelet. Every trip home from the cancer centre was now bracelet free. It was my way to remove another PTSD trigger.

Other possible PTSD triggers

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, your new normal, but that check comes totally unglued when:

  • A sight, sound, or location takes you back to the days when you were receiving chemo or radiation.

  • Someone you know, who has been cancer free for years, tells you that their cancer is back.

  • Someone you know is diagnosed with cancer.

  • There is some kind of new study done that makes you question how your treatment was done. Did you make the right choices?

  • There is a new lump, you have a cough that won’t go away, or you have more aches and pains than you remember. You ask yourself if your cancer is back and has spread. 

  • You go for a mammogram and you get asked to come back for an ultrasound.  '

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. 


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