We all remember 9/11—where we were, when we heard about the terrorist attacks, and how we felt at that moment and in the following days. Whenever we experience a traumatic event, our brain moves into a high alert state, records the event and causes the body’s stress response (fight or flight) to react.
For cancer survivors, it is not unusual to experience reactions to the anniversary of the various losses and struggles that cancer has brought into their lives. It is enough of a common experience that there is a name for it: CANCERVERSARY.
A cancerversary can be:
The date, month or time of year of your diagnosis
When treatment ended or is expected to end
The date of surgery or first biopsy or when margins were clear
The date a loved one died
The number of months or years since being declared cancer-free
Any date or period of time that holds significance for you
These reactions can be triggered by a specific date of the trauma or even a situation that brings up the memory, like a particular sound, sight, or even smell. They can create emotions that range from sadness to extreme distress, anger, anxiety, and physical responses (such as sweating, increased heart rate, GI distress).
These anniversary responses are the re-experiencing of past traumatic events. When a specific event is remembered, our response can be felt both emotionally as well as physically. Although each of us experiences pain differently, anniversary reactions can happen to anyone.
How do you best try and manage these reactions?
First, be mindful of the calendar. Be on the lookout for the time that you associate with the difficult event. It’s not that you must be distressed, but knowing that you might feel vulnerable at that time helps prepare you to have some plans to take special care of yourself. It usually doesn’t work trying to forget a painful experience. I saw a great quote from an unknown author: “Nothing improves the memory more than trying to forget it.”
Rituals are a very helpful way to honor your feelings. These can be as simple as lighting a candle, taking a pleasurable walk in nature, planting something that will grow and flourish, or even having a special meal. It doesn’t matter what it is as much as you are honoring your experience.
It’s also important not to isolate yourself. Try to connect with those who can offer you support. Remember, it’s OK to allow yourself time and space to feel the emotions. Assess your emotional balance, reach out and seek professional help from either your physician or contact your local mental health professional.
For most cancer survivors, just giving themselves the time and space to acknowledge the impact of the event can help heal.
What’s your Cancerversary? In what way do you mark the time to move forward in your healing?
Louise B. Lubin, PhD
Independent Practice of Psychotherapy for Adults and Couples Community Faculty Eastern Virginia Medical School Program Director, Many Paths to Healing National Register Credentialed since 1982