The Many Faces of PTSD

PTSD is a non-definitive disorder because it ranges a series of symptoms in order to formulate a diagnosis. The three cases I’m going to discuss include: my personal story, my younger cousin’s story and an old friend’s. Each of us has experienced the toll of having a parent with cancer and the aftermath of losing one. This isn’t classifying anyone who has witnessed the effects of cancer as having PTSD, but it does happen. Through the many trepidations of treatments to the horrific check-ups where you pray your parent will be okay, it’s hard. It's a tough situation for anyone to hear your loved one is sick, but it's especially hard for kids to process that a parent has a likelihood of dying soon.

My Story

At the age of 10, I discovered my mom was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer. I say "discovered" mainly because she was too afraid to tell me, and I found out by eavesdropping on her and my older brother. It was strange to hear the word cancer. I had heard of it before but had no idea what it was (let alone what an ovary was). As I sat down and searched the web, a huge compilation of websites describing the diagnosis appeared before me. I spent 20 minutes reading and clicking on every page that could make sense to a 10-year-old. After that, I stood up and realized what it meant: my mom was sick, and I had no idea what I could do to fix it.

I didn’t tell her immediately that I knew, I waited for weeks for her to gain the courage to tell me and sit me down but alas, she never did. No one ever really told me or sat me down and said, “Well, look your mom has cancer.” It just became the norm, and I had to find a way to deal with it.

Around this time, my older brother was getting ready to move to France to complete his master’s degree. Having come from a single mother household, I often looked at my brother as the patriarchal figure in the family. Yet, as I looked at him, I eventually saw that he had a decision to make: to go to Paris and live out his dream or to stay and help my mother. He chose the former. And I was alone — just me, myself and my mom’s cancer.

My mom is as resilient as they come, but cancer can find a way to make even the strongest of people weak. The first step in her journey for a cure was the removal of her uterus, also known as a hysterectomy. Then came the charging bull of chemotherapy. Each time she went, I went. To this day, I remember the cold feeling of the reclining chair I sat in as I watched the treatment being connected to her chemo port. Time stood still there. Just being there reminded me of the fact that my mother was slowly dying, and no matter how fast the treatment entered, the effects were all the same.

On Christmas day, as she hurried along to cook, I could see that her hair was falling out. All down her back, the mounds of red hair fell. No one had the heart to tell her. So, there I was picking up the hair behind her, all to prevent her from seeing it.

Immediately after her diagnosis, I was placed in a cancer support group for children whose parents are suffering from cancer. I hated it. Why would I need to tell a bunch of strangers how I was feeling when I barely knew myself? It wasn’t until they shut down the program and the death of my uncle, that I realized that I needed those kids as much as they needed me. The purpose behind that support group became clear to me. All of those kids knew exactly how I felt. I thank them and all the psychologists who sat with us and let us speak about the fear we felt.

When my mother was officially cleared, I locked that part of my life away and moved on. However, life has a way of letting things out, and my cancerous demons came back to haunt me again. She was diagnosed a second time and the same routine came forth, only this time the treatment was much more aggressive. I felt nothing. No happiness, no sadness, only an overwhelming amount of isolationism.

A few years after my mom’s diagnosis, my uncle had been diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer and was given eight months to live. The moment the tumor was removed, the uncle I knew was gone. He lost the ability to walk and sank further into a depression.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized, each momentous life experience I ever had was plagued by cancer. I turned 10, ready for my last year in elementary school, and my mom was first diagnosed. I began the painful process of puberty, and my mother’s cancer had metastasized. During my sophomore year of high school, my uncle passed away and left my 11-year-old cousin and aunt behind. I got to college and thought this was over, but then my close family member had been diagnosed with anal cancer. I am caught in a tangled rope of painful diagnoses.

This is when I realized my own struggle with PTSD. All my life, the constant recurrence of cancer has led to an overwhelming amount of pent-up anger and fear. I would say “my worst fear in life is to get cancer,” and my cousins would brush it off and say it’s everyone’s worst fear. However, I’m not afraid of the treatments or the diagnosis, but of what it means to have cancer. My mother may not have died, but a part of her did. The woman I knew to be my mom was no longer present in the role she needed to be as a parent. I took care of myself, and my own way of coping with her disease eventually instilled a fear within me. I’m scared of an entity that cannot physically touch me but that follows me and haunts my life.

It angers me to think that there’s a lack of research being conducted that delves into the world of children dealing with parental cancer. Just like those kids who sat around me during support groups, my experience was only a small nuance of a bigger problem.

Kevin's & Kate’s stories

As I mentioned above, the death of my uncle not only affected me, but greatly affected his son. Kevin had just started middle school when his dad was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Kevin had also been kept out of the loop for months until I had the courage to sit him down and explain to him what was about to happen. I did for him what I thought should’ve been done for me. He grew quieter and more timid around the family.

My friend Kate was about 15 when her father was diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer. Unlike Kevin’s, Kate’s dad was an active parent who played volleyball and basketball with her. She remembers the first moment when she knew something was wrong. As they were playing basketball, he lost his balance and fell to the floor. He didn’t get back up and she called the ambulance — everything had seemed normal before that moment. Upon further examinations, Kate’s dad was diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer, too.

Both of their dads had months to live, and through those months, the physical and mental deterioration affected them greatly.

On Kate’s side, her father fought depression by trying to remain physically active. He really believed he could surpass the doctor’s diagnosis. Kate did too, until she’d see him disoriented and fatigued. As the chemotherapy treatments progressed, so did the symptoms. Kate’s first experience of PTSD stemmed from the constant calls to ambulances as her father would get severely ill after treatments. To this day, any incident that requires Kate to enable her flight or fight response causes an immediate immobilization.

Kevin’s dad lost his ability to walk soon after the operation to remove the tumor. Little by little, he forgot certain dates or telephone numbers. Much like Kate’s dad, Kevin’s dad began to get aggressive. It was difficult for both of them to witness the deterioration of their fathers. Especially because, unlike other forms of cancer, brain cancer contains the most visibly present symptoms and signs of severe deterioration.

Kate’s dad died two months after his expected life period, and Kevin’s died after six months. Kate was present during the whole thing and saw firsthand how the father she once knew was slipping away from her grasp. Kevin was shut out by his mom from witnessing his father’s illness but was present during his times of anger or forgetfulness. Kate was with her father the day he died, and Kevin found out by walking into his empty room. Two traumatic experiences, each having a different effect on its victim.

Kevin’s dad died on a Friday and the next Monday, Kevin got ready for school and took a state assessment. He moved on quickly and adapted to his new life of not having his dad. It took time, but for the first time in years, I actually saw him cry. I remember the exact moment when he stepped into the room and I heard him sob. The sound was deafening. It was the sound of pure pain filled with empty years that were ripped away from him. Months later, I moved in with Kevin and his mom to help him cope. His grades slipped and he grew more distant. Although there was no outcry or overtly prevalent sign of PTSD, Kevin’s loss planted a seed of toxic emotions. He became more cloistered and he grew detached from other members of the family. In a way, cancer also took away his childhood.

Kate’s PTSD began right after the death of her father as she fell into a deep depression. Her depression eventually led to self-harm and anorexia-nervosa. She suffered so much resentment and guilt that she saw herself as a contributing factor in her father’s death. It took her years to finally seek help, and through rehab and proper therapy she was properly diagnosed with PTSD and given antidepressants.

Why Does This Matter?

According to the North Puget Cancer Center and Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine, around 22.4% of all cancer cases occur between the ages of 21 and 55, falling directly over the childbearing and rearing period. This is a substantive number of individuals who are diagnosed with cancer. There has been a large number of studies focusing on PTSD-related to parents of children who have cancer. Yet there has not been enough research signaling a correlation between PTSD and parental cancer. This is vital in ensuring that future generations dealing with parental cancer have the necessary means to develop properly.

To those of you reading who have gone through a similar experience or are currently going through something similar, trust me when I say you’re not alone. It will be hard but hold fast to your inner strength because that is the one thing that cancer can never take away from you.