The Cancer Trauma Project

Cancer Related Traumatic Stress is real and the The Cancer Trauma Project, together with Cervivor is doing something about it. We appreciate this opportunity to share our project with the Cervivor community and to make a lasting impact. The Cancer Trauma Project seeks to promote understanding of the emotional trauma people experience from cancer. We do this by listening to stories, writing, speaking, and training providers and we need your help.

Cancer Related Traumatic Stress is related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in that it falls on the spectrum of stress-related mental health conditions but it is not widely recognized. In fact, if your medical team told you about it, please contact us because we want to thank them! More often people aren’t told about Cancer Related Traumatic Stress even though people with cancer are often screened for distress. Distress and traumatic stress are very different. We might be distressed about being late to an appointment, having another scan, preparing for surgery or something else. For the most part, when the event that is causing us distress is over, we are OK.  With traumatic stress, the effects are lasting, might not show themselves until long after the event, and are often marked by experiencing the same thoughts, feelings, and body sensations as they did during the event, even though we know we are nowhere near the doctor’s office. This is a hallmark or trauma – your body remembers the event and can activate the same feelings and sensations as if you were there again. In its extreme form, this is a flashback.The most common events during the cancer journey that cause traumatic stress are the diagnosis conversation, the time between that conversation and a treatment plan or starting treatment, and follow up scans. But we know that the cancer journey is fraught with many more daily events, like having to get another needle, realizing that your plans for biological children may be over, losing your hair, figuring out how to explain to employers why you were out of work, medical bills, the onslaught of “well wishes” from others, sharing the news with loved ones, especially children, and many others.

The Cancer Trauma Project has collected over 50 stories. We incorporate these stories into our writing to demonstrate the impact of cancer related traumatic stress. Hear the words of one survivor:

The chemo. You feel like you’re really sick. It’s the chemicals and not the cancer but your mind can’t distinguish that. So emotionally you’re dying. I felt like I was facing my death even though I had some chances I wasn’t going to die. I could have. But I gripped it like I could die.

The biggest thing is I couldn’t ever feel grounded. I felt I was always on, trying to go 100 miles an hour to try and deal with everything. It is as if you’re playing dodge ball and everyone is always throwing balls at you.

I’d stay up late at night, my heart was racing, my actions were quick, trying to figure things out. Panic is disorganized but I would focus on let’s get on with everything. That stayed at a heightened level.

When we talk about the emotional trauma related to cancer so many people validate what we are saying but when push comes to shove people aren’t getting the right kind of mental health treatment and that is a BIG issue. To be effective we have to hear your stories. We are grateful that the Cervivor community teaches cervivors how to powerfully share their stories. We all know that having cancer can be a very stressful experience for both the person with cancer and their support system. But what hasn’t been clearly documented is the way the stress of cancer is emotional trauma. The Cancer Trauma Project is looking at trauma as Dr. Saakvitne and her colleagues did. Trauma in people with cancer is the unique individual experience of an event, a series of events, or a set of enduring conditions, in which the individual’s ability to integrate their emotional experience is overwhelmed.

Your story provides the wisdom that guides our work. If you’d like to participate you can complete our screening or send an email to contact@cancertrauma.com. After you complete the screening form, we’ll follow up to schedule an interview or send you the online interview. If you’re in the Washington, DC area, we’d love to meet you in person. If we are going to truly help people with Cancer Related Traumatic Stress, we need to know how the emotional trauma of cancer happens. By listening to your stories, the Cancer Trauma Project will learn from you and spread the word through writing, speaking, and training. Please join us in this mission.

Click here to complete the screening to share your story.

Brain Surgery for Cervical Cancer?

Warning this post contains medical photos and talk that may not be for everyone.

Yes… it’s not common, but true, cervical cancer can metastasize like any other cancer. I was originally diagnosed, with stage 1b1 cervical cancer 2 years ago. I had an almost 10-year history of normal paps. Please, get your well-woman exams, vaccinate your children, I beg you, no one should go through this.

My whole brain radiation setup includes a very tight hard plastic/mesh mask to hold my head perfectly still. The radiation itself is quick (~10min), thankfully, the mask isn’t very claustrophobic. l have 3 weeks of daily radiation to keep the small lesions in check.

This all started with a swollen lymph node in my clavicle a few months ago, it came up during my routine oncology follow up, after a biopsy, it turned out to be recurrence; of my cervical cancer. I started chemo and after only one round, the node pretty much disappeared. Good news my oncologist was ecstatic. I decided to seek a second opinion at MD Anderson in Houston they agreed with my treatment plan, which was a relief. They are also going to genetic test my tumor. This is where the plot thickens. While there I developed vertigo and had a hard time moving my head or keeping my eyes open without the world spinning. And my balance was terrible, then I started vomiting with small head movements. Somehow we flew home to Portland, Oregon from Houston thanks to United for helping with wheelchairs and pushing me around airports so my husband could tend to our 2-year-old.

Hospitals are boring, so good friends help make sure your nails still look good!

The next day, first day home, I was worse, my husband went to work and I rolled over in bed and vomited all over myself. I called him, he rushed home cleaned me up, and I rested, he’s a primo man. I got worse as the day went on, called a friend to sit with me, not many people would want to hang out with someone that vomits every time they move. After she arrived we decided 911 was in order, I couldn’t move without emptying my stomach contents. Those poor paramedics. Getting me into the ambulance was a bit like the exorcist, but not pea soup. I just wanted the world to stop spinning.

Benign vertigo was the original diagnosis but a neurological exam revealed weakness on my left side so they decided to do an MRI. The ER doctor with the results was waiting for me before I made it back to my room after the MRI, not a good sign. I had a <3CM tumor on my cerebellum causing inflammation, likely the cause of my issues, they also found multiple smaller lesions in my brain, they had already contacted the on-call neuro team. I was moved to the neurological ICU, I had 2 options, hit steroids hard with hope that controlling the inflammation will lessen the vertigo symptoms or major brain surgery to remove the tumor on my cerebellum, we chose to get it out.

My “brain drain”.

The next 24 hours are a blur, I remember little. The surgery was successful, they got it all, I had an amazing surgical and nursing team. My primary oncologist even sat in on the surgery. I came out with a six inch, 15 stitch incision on the side of my head and an EVD (external ventricular drain) Google it if you’d like to learn more, but I just called it my “brain drain”. It had to be aligned at all times to my ear to drain cerebral spinal fluid and prevent too much pressure on my brain so its maintenance/care was a constant box to check by my nurses. I spent a week in neurological ICU, regaining strength, practicing walking and getting my balance back. Fortunately, the surgery brought sweet relief of my symptoms, but with brain surgery comes new issues, I have left sided ataxia/weakness. Walking was challenging initially, I needed assistance to do everything including going to the bathroom. I am walking independently now, I can do most daily self-care tasks, including showering, but recovery is tough. My fine motor skills still need work. This took about twice as long to type as pre-surgery.

My son, Wayne playing doctor. The wonderful hospital provided us with toys for my son to play with while he visited.

So my next step, I’ve already started whole brain radiation to control my brain lesions, they are too small for focused radiation. I’ll restart chemo, Carboplatin/Taxol/Avastin when radiation ends, October 18, the day after my 34th birthday. I’ll likely remain on Avastin, indefinitely. I’ll also start neuro-physical therapy and occupational therapy soon. But I’m on the road to recovery!

Learn more about my story here: http://cervivor.org/stories/lizzi/