When Cancer Triggers Trauma

August 29, 2023

Not only can a cancer diagnosis be difficult and lead to trauma of its own, so too can it interplay with other difficult life experiences and traumas someone has experienced and add a whole other layer of feelings and perspectives.

My father died when I was 28 years old (not of cancer, but another horrible disease). I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 34. As, I imagine, many people who have lost a loved one feel, the grief associated with that loss does not go away… or at least that has been my experience. I continue to grieve the death of my father, and this grief has added another layer or lens through which I experience my cancer diagnosis (and vice versa). I have often wondered to myself what this experience of being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatments would have been like if my father were still alive. I know my dad would be proud of me. He would think I was brave.  He’d worry about me even though I wouldn’t want him to. When I was in high school, one morning I accidentally hit my hand on something hard, resulting in a small but deep cut. My dad sprang into action, so concerned about getting me to the hospital for stitches that he didn’t even want me to change out of my pyjamas.  He conceded to at least let me do that when I assured him it wasn’t so bad that it couldn’t wait just the couple extra minutes it would take for me to change my clothes. This same Papa Bear fierceness would’ve jumped into action this time too. I know he would’ve had the same care and protection for me he’d always had before. He would’ve been a tremendous support, a cheerleader, a shoulder to cry on, and he would’ve whole-heartedly rejoiced when there was good news. Importantly, he would’ve been there for my mom, and they would’ve had each other to lean on and support.

Oh, how I long for my father to wrap me in his arms and tell me he’s got me every step of the way.

I share these reflections as I hope to highlight that we all come to our cancer diagnoses with our different lived experiences. A cancer diagnosis does not bring about feelings in a vacuum, but rather, in the mix and mingle of life’s emotions and other experiences, inextricably intertwined and informing one another, in ways that may feel difficult or perhaps helpful and sometimes even both.

While my father’s illness and death have been difficult, I also believe these experiences have prompted an increased resilience in me that has served me well in navigating my experience with cancer… And while I am not physically wrapped in the arms of my father as I go through this, I carry him with me every step of the way.

I hope you know that if your cancer diagnosis has stirred up, or unearthed, or added layers to a prior difficult experience in your life, you are not alone… And whether that’s been hard or helpful or both, I hope you’re doing okay. — Erika

Read more from the community on trauma, here!

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