September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Post Traumatic Stress experienced by parents of children with cancer.

Hearing the words “Your child has cancer” is a life threatening traumatic experience. As life threatening as if your small child ran out in front of a car, with brakes squealing, and people screaming. Parents running to their child. We are wired to survive by running away or fighting back, fight or flight. Our nervous system is always on the lookout for danger. But when hearing the words Cancer, there is no running away or fighting back in the moment. Time stands still. Life stops on a dime. We sense a feeling of helplessness. The discharge preparing our nervous system for fight or flight is frozen in our sensory and hormonal system without being resolved, potentially developing into Post Traumatic Stress many years later.

As the body of knowledge is rapidly expanding on how the physical body experiences trauma, we are just touching the edge of understanding the impact a traumatic experience has on the body, possibly for years. My grandson was only a baby, 18 months old, when diagnosed with a rare eye cancer. But his little body remembers, his nervous system remembers. His mom remembers every small detail. She says it was as if she was watching a movie. Feeling helpless. This is not really happening. Found she did not want to talk. She describes knots in her chest that she was not aware of until practicing trauma sensitive meditation.

Other symptoms of PTS are sleep difficulties and nightmares, avoidance of people, places or things associated with the experience, emotional numbing, feeling distant or cut off, easily startled, high levels of anxiety, restlessness, and agitation. These are all symptoms of nervous system dysregulation.

Forty-six kids will be told they have cancer today in the US Cancer is the leading cause of pediatric death by disease. Many are surviving the cancer, to live with unintegrated trauma. 80% are surviving to become long term survivors.

Only four percent of the National Cancer Institute budget is dedicated to researching childhood cancers. President Donald Trump’s proclamation on National Childhood Cancer Awareness month, emphasizes the need for not only more awareness, but more research, more treatment options, and funding.

A much needed area of research funding is in the area of collective trauma, generational trauma, and healing of PTS in parents, with a child diagnosed with cancer. Mom’s healing from trauma is her child’s healing.

Most children do survive, but with long term complications from the treatments. Research is needed to determine the effects of unintegrated trauma in those long term complications. Healing the trauma opens the nervous system for healing, rather than a nervous system constricted and contracted in fear and numbness. Parents co-regulate with their child. The child’s body knows and feels the fear of parents.

Our bodies want to heal. Our bodies are built to heal. As nurses, our responsibility is creating the environment for healing. Though I have retired from the profession of nursing, I bring that belief to my work in helping people recover from trauma, through coaching.

Don’t take on PTS alone. Trauma causes separation and isolation. Feeling of not being fully alive. PTS may interfere with obtaining needed tests, cancer treatments, follow up care. As is now known from the study of PTS in Veterans and military service men and women, PTS also increases the risk of developing other mental, physical, and social problems.

Healing happens in relationships, connecting with others. Being seen and heard, the nervous system relaxes and feels safe. A Mom feels safe, a child feels safe. Nurses and physicians feel safe.

Our bodies want to heal.

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