Driver > Passenger > Trunk
by Cindy Finch, LCSW
My friend Kayla was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at just 24 years old. She survived the fiery trial of cancer treatments, the removal of both her breasts, and dozens of medications, and now she faces a lifetime of follow-up care. But even after everything she has been through, she says she feels an excitement and zest for life that she never had before, finding deep satisfaction in her work and savoring nearly every day she is alive. She’s even produced an epic documentary about the young adult cancer experience that has been shown across the nation and is currently streaming on Amazon. It makes you wonder, How does she do it?
She experienced something called post-traumatic growth. Let me explain. Post-traumatic growth is the positive mental shift that some people undergo as a result of facing adversity.
As a therapist, I see people for a wide variety of reasons. Many seek out my help to better manage a difficult relationship, cope with loss, or move through any number of troubling life situations, including cancer. When a person goes through a traumatic life event, they usually follow a somewhat steady and predictable progression. I like to call this progression Driver > Passenger > Trunk. And, as a cancer survivor myself, I’ve experienced it firsthand.
A cancer diagnosis can make us feel like we’ve been pushed from the driver’s seat of our own vehicle. We may experience shock, terror, dread, and disbelief. This is all normal and to be expected. When we are suddenly at the whim of an outside force – like cancer – we tend to feel like a victim. We’ve been carjacked by cancer. And it’s taken over the driver’s seat.
The next phase of moving through a traumatic event like cancer is what I call the Front-Seat Passenger phase. Though you’re still in shock and disbelief, this is when you learn how to work with cancer so you can try to survive it. You’re able to take back the wheel of your life, but cancer is still in the front seat. And it’s a very nasty and bossy front-seat passenger, telling you where to go and how to drive.
The end of active treatment and recovery often signals a time when we gain a bit more control, and now we can begin to move cancer to the back seat of our lives. But be careful. For many cancer survivors, this is a vulnerable time. You may have finished your treatments, but they may not be finished with you. The side effects of cancer treatment can last long after treatment ends.
During this phase, some days will feel better than others. At times, you may not even notice that cancer is riding with you. But it’s still there, hanging out in your back seat. And the fear of being carjacked by cancer again may also linger. It is during this phase that cancer survivors may experience post-traumatic stress or its more severe cousin, post-traumatic stress disorder. While there are significant therapeutic interventions that can help (like medications, trauma therapy, and support groups), one often overlooked strategy is promoting post-traumatic growth.
Know the Warning Signs for PTSD
Key indicators of post-traumatic stress include:
- Repeated frightening thoughts
- Being easily distracted or anxious
- Trouble sleeping
- Feelings of detachment from oneself or from reality
Cancer-related post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms include:
- Significant anxiety
- A sense of losing control
- A terrifying fear of recurrence
- Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Unwanted or frightening thoughts
- Difficulty feeling emotions
- Avoidance of triggers (such as hospitals, scans, etc.)
- Hypervigilance over your body for any signs of recurrence
- Social isolation
If you see yourself in any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor so you can get the help you need.
When challenging times puncture our reality, we may struggle mightily. But we can also become more open to other ways of seeing ourselves and the world. If we allow it, this struggle can temporarily deconstruct our lives and help us build a new, stronger framework for life based on our resilience and ability to overcome difficulties. This is what helps us move cancer into the trunk of our lives.
During this time, we are more willing to try new approaches to life, let go of limiting beliefs, engage in new challenges, make amends in relationships, seek spirituality, and expand our thinking. This is post-traumatic growth.
Trauma can transform us if we allow it. No matter where cancer currently sits in the vehicle of your life, lean in to the transformation. Before long, cancer will be in your trunk as you explore the new roads that lie ahead.
Cindy Finch is a therapist and writer living in Southern California with her husband and three children. She was diagnosed with lymphoma while she was pregnant and now enjoys just being alive and helping others through cancer. You can connect with her via her website, CindyFinch.com.
You can read more about post-traumatic growth after cancer at copingmag.com/post-traumatic.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2020.