Cancer PTSD

I’ve received a lot of letters from you guys thanking me for writing about my anxiety and my PTSD from cancer treatment.

My friend E (who is also going through cancer treatment) told me about how he was watching a movie that had a hospital scene in it. He started to feel “icky” and uncomfortable and didn’t know why and then he realized that he was being triggered by the hospital scene.

So what can you do when this happens? For me – if I can recognize and acknowledge that I’m being triggered by something. That helps dissipate the feeling for me.

Doing square breathing can help. I have this photo in my phone and I will use it as a guide to help me. Sometimes when I’m anxious I need something to focus on to do this exercise. If I don’t have this photo then I look around the room for something square and follow it with my eyes while I breath.


I also do things like pretend the radiation machine is my friend.


When the radiation techs leave me in the room alone and I’m lying under the machine I say “Hello machine” and then when it’s weird arms move around doing it’s zapping and I pretend that it’s hugging me and zapping me with love lasers. Ha ha.

I saw my therapist last Thursday and we talked a little about the trauma. We are going to start doing EMDR in the new year.

I’ve worked with her using this method on other trauma. It took me a little while to understand the process but once it clicks it worked really well for me.

But working on trauma is exhausting difficult work and the last thing I need right now is to feel more exhausted. So we are going to work on this once I’m done all my cancer treatment and I’ve had some time to heal from the radiation.

What kinds of things do you do to nurture yourself when you’re having anxiety?

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12 Responses to Cancer PTSD

  1. I absolutely love what you do with the radiation machine. You’re so freakin’ imaginative!

    I never heard of square breathing before. I have really bad anxiety, so I’m going to try it. Interested in how the EMDR will help you.

    As always…huge admiration for you, your strength, your light, and lots of good thoughts/vibes/prayers for your smooth, speedy recovery.

  2. Kolina says:

    Square breathing is the BEST. And I totally know where you’re coming from with recognizing that you’re being triggered. Just saying outloud, “I am feeling anxious. This is my anxiety acting up and it will go away. I won’t feel like this forever.” really helps me.

    When I was first diagnosed with anxiety/OCD, my therapist had me write a list of things that helped ease my anxiety. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of an attack it’s hard to think about the things that will help, so it’s great to have a physical reference (like the pic in your phone!). When I feel anxious I go straight to my list. These are some of the things on it:

    1) Going for a brisk walk while listening to music really loud in my headphones. It gets my heart rate up and I can’t really focus on anything but that and the music.
    (A friend suggested going for a walk and giving yourself a “goal,” ie looking for three white houses, five dogs, something simple that will give your brain something to focus on.)

    2) Call a friend. When I feel anxious I call my a friend and ask about their day. It distracts me and it always helps to hear the voice of someone you love.
    (Keep a list of names of people that know about your anxiety and that you know will be supportive.)

    3) Watch a funny TV show/movie.

    4) Listen to music that makes you happy. Last time I felt crummy I put on Purple Rain and danced around!

    5) My therapist suggested using ice water when I felt really bad. It sounds weird, but it works: get a big bowl of cold water with ice cubes in it and dunk your face in. I thought it would make me feel worse but it actually stuns me so much that the anxiety quits for a few minutes. Then I can use my other coping techniques more easily.

    And always remember that you have people that love you and are always here for you! Anxiety can make you feel very alone but you aren’t. Promise <3

  3. Jane Wiedlin says:

    Sarah, I’ve been meaning to tell you: ever since you told me about Square Breathing a few months ago I’ve been doing it, and I love it!
    I just close my eyes and do the square in my mind.
    I use it to go to sleep a lot.
    I liked the suggestions your readers are giving too!

  4. Esther Patrick says:

    I love your techniques – great stuff! I hope you’re having as nice a holiday season as possible under the circumstances. I’m not great at thinking of things to say, so I don’t always comment here, but I do think about you and send ‘healing thoughts’ as much as possible 🙂

  5. I think recognizing the anxiety is a great first step. Next time the anxiety hits, I’ll find something square and trace it out with my breath. It’s a great idea, and I’ll be sure to share it with the FCT community. Thanks! ~Catherine

  6. Natasha Harhold says:

    I have generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, OCD, extreme social anxiety and a little PTSD thrown in for good measure. I have many panic attacks on a daily basis despite medication and therapy, but I will say, it’s getting better with time and work. Having said that, I use a form of square breathing, but I’ve always just called it my “yoga breathing.” 😉 I’ve also found that when I feel a panic attack coming on, what works for me is to just get very still and quiet, focus on the breathing, and pet one of my dogs. Gracie is really good about recognizing when a panic attack is coming on and she comes over and just sits next to me. She makes herself available for my benefit. Sitting quietly, focusing on my breath, and gently stroking Gracie helps a lot. Also, just telling myself that I’m going to be fine and that it will pass soon helps. The first few I had scared me. Now I know I’ll live so I just breathe through it and sit quietly with my dog. Panic and anxiety aren’t fun, but reminding yourself that it will pass and you’ll be fine do seem to help – at least it helps me, your mileage may vary.

    • Sarah says:

      Dog bless Gracie. 🙂
      My Fergus is also very intuitive and either snuggles right up or gives me space. He always knows what I need.

      Thanks for sharing.

  7. Sarah Tobia says:

    I know this is an old post of yours, but I can’t tell you how much reading your own experience has helped me. I had cancer as a child, but only now in this past year has all the trauma come to surface. The clarity, and vulnerability, that I have found has been hard to cope with.

    I actually just came here after reading a triggering (though valid) post in my online support group. Can’t tell you how much I needed this. Thank you.

    On a lighter note, PS, La Dolce Vegan is the best cookbook ever <3

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