After the Cure, the Cry… by Steve Safran

I broke down crying in Target today. Just started blubbering. People must have thought I was really upset they were out of the $9.99 sale sweatshirts.

This will be heavy. This is not the usual, lighthearted stuff I want to write. But this blog has always been weirdly honest, even when Britt and I have been at our jokiest. I like to think we’ve put stuff out there that’s tough to discuss, and more uncomfortable to admit. And right now, things are difficult for me.

I didn’t cry much during treatment for testicular cancer. Not when I was diagnosed. Not when I was in pain. Not when I spent endless hours in the hospital, frustrated at the lack of attention, information, or prompt pain management. Hardly a tear. Now that I’m in remission and feeling well enough to shop for sweatshirts at Target?

I can’t stop crying.

During the Battle of Britain in 1940, as Londoners were faced with being obliterated by the Luftwaffe, the incidence of mental illness dropped. Fewer people visited psychiatrists. Even as the Germans tried to kill them, Britons actually experienced less stress and need for psychiatric care. You can chalk that up to the famous British stiff upper lip, but it’s likely something more universal: when you’re under attack, you don’t have time to worry.

This is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Soldiers don’t get depressed in the field. But for years after– even for the rest of their lives— they can be haunted by the trauma they saw and endured. It’s only after the battle is done that your mind takes a beat: “Hey. Wait. What just happened?”

Thus, me, cancer… and the crying.

Right up to the moment they were rolling me into the operating room, I felt absolutely fearless. I was even indignant that the surgeon was running late. I was pretty drugged up, but I know, I absolutely know, I didn’t feel scared at that moment. I said, “Let’s do this” with all the bravado of a warrior. Let’s go in and smoke out the enemy. The camo was on, the war paint was smeared, and I had readied myself for battle, albeit wearing a backless nightie in a sterile room with polite nurses and soft rock.

Of course, I had an initial cry of relief. The release. It felt good. Someone with CT scan results and authority said, “remission,” that no more treatment was needed, and boy was that cry-worthy. But within just a couple of days, I switched into a very different gear. And things got dark. And I started to think…

My body tried to kill me. Twice.

First it betrayed me with cancer, and then a week later it attacked me with a pulmonary embolism. I’m having a hard time forgiving my body for that. To be struck by an enemy soldier is one thing; to be attacked from within? My body tried to kill me and when it wasn’t successful the first time, it tried again.

Bastard.

Now my body has scars. They embarrass me and they will never go away. I have had far more difficult emotional days since being cured than I did while undergoing chemo. I have hospital flashbacks, picturing needles and bags full of chemicals and it’s all horrible like some sort of far-off, war-torn jungle. Also, now I get a lot of eye boogers. Apparently chemo messes with your tear ducts. Not enough to stop the crying, apparently, but another daily reminder that I needed tear duct-poisoning medicines to ensure my survival.

I’m getting help. I talk with a psychiatrist who says he’s a “big fan of crying.” I see what he means. It metabolizes the pain. Crying is the most human response to all of the loss: losing parts of my body and, at least for now, any sort of confidence that it won’t betray me again.

There is appreciative crying, too. These tears spring from a different place. I think back on all the people who helped me–  all of the people who volunteered their time or simply gave a thumbs up to a posting. Cancer can remind you that you’re actually very loved, and the overwhelming gratitude in the aftermath makes it occasionally hard to speak without choking up.

It has been about four weeks since I learned the chemo worked. And I’ve gone from crying all the time to maybe once a day. So maybe there’s something to this business after all. It’s not manly, at least not in the traditional “suck it up and be a man” sense. But I think I get a little leeway on the “manly” front after getting the kind of cancer that requires the removal of an intimate chunk of physical manliness. The chunk, by the way, that was trying to kill me.

How do I forgive my body for attempted suicide? How do I come to terms with forever being branded a “cancer survivor,” or letting go a carefree notion that serious illness is something that happens to old people that aren’t me? How the hell do I get over this?

I don’t know. For now, I cry.

Happy, grateful crying when Stevie got the good news.

Happy, grateful crying when Stevie got the good news. Also, another example of how nurses are awesome.

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12 responses

  1. Steve, you said it so well. The battlefield cures depression because anger takes over, and are empowered to go after the enemy. Now the enemy is defeated, you are getting on with the gift of life. Beautiful is more beautiful, Love stronger, small problems less disturbing, because you’ve been to Hell and back……back to life renewed. I am so so thankful! Give us more of your thoughts, we need them. Marilyn

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. It is emotionally debilitating. It is good that you are seeing a professional. I staggered through that with a few visits but would recommend all the help you can manage. It is very hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced it how difficult the post cancer mental health is. Hang in there Steve.

    • It requires a whole different vocabulary, doesn’t it? There are those who have been dizzy or lightheaded, but the experience in your head during chemo doesn’t have a word for it. And I didn’t know until I went through it that the vocabulary for illness and survivorship doesn’t exist. Maybe we can start one.

  3. I know this is the last thing “funny Steve” wants to hear, but I’m crying too. I get it. Good for you. Cry on Motherfucker! (is that better?) I know all the rules and stuff around compassion and empathy, so it may be off base to share this. But after Zachary died, I stood in the clothes hanger aisle of Bed, Bath and Beyond. The hangers were up so high I couldn’t reach them. I had a panic attack, I had no idea how to get those hangers. I couldn’t breathe until I got the hell out of there. PTSD is rough. And why does it happen in Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond, but not Nordstroms? Huh? I’m glad you are being gentle with yourself. As my therapist says, “those tears are the good news”. Sometimes I want to tell her to F off, but it really is true. Plus, you get the dopamine high afterwards. So cry on man, and know we cry with you.

  4. My sister-in-law said something similar. She had a scare earlier in the year when they found a malignant lump in her lung (she had bowel cancer three years ago) and she said that she was fine all the way through the removal, it wasn’t until afterwards when she popped into the cancer support centre that all of a sudden she was in buckets. Perfectly normal response imho. I’m so glad you’re getting better!

    • Dear Steve,

      I am so glad you wrote about this – the emotional fall-out, so bomb-like, that sneaks up on us AFTER we get through all the horrific treatment followed by a positive outcome. The tight fist of the aftermath sneaks up and gets us in a strangle hold of delayed and crippling fear, anger, and the sudden realization of being so shell shocked as we recognize all the losses we could never have imagined. To be deemed in remission, then feeling those losses is mind-bendingly bewildering and exhausting. So glad you have a great support system. You have done a great service with this post. It’s just so sad that so many people suffer in silence, and also sad that even if they are able to articulate their feelings, many of their closest friends and family never really “get” it. Yup, crying is good – for all the different ways those tears are warranted.

      I wish I could have been here to lend you my virtual support; but shortly after our last communication, I went silent and could no longer read blogs, let alone comment on them. Ensnared in the tangled web of grief and loss from widowhood and 2 cancers, I went straight to crazy town for a long time, I wish I could make YOU a playlist of music like the one you posted as a Valentine gift. Absolutely no techy skills, but I have a lot of love and empathy – so take that love and empathy into your heart from me to you, and let it help hold you up, dear Steve. And much love to Britt whom I know has been a steady champion for you. ((((((hugs))))))), Karen

      • Oh, Karen. It’s awful, isn’t it? I don’t believe you’ve gone to crazy town at all, although I know exactly what it feels like. The loss of control after a life where one feels so in control (or, at least, doesn’t really think about it) is devastating. I hope people aren’t silent. I hope they share how they feel, no matter the pain it causes them. The illnesses are terrible. I can’t imagine your losses, but I am with you in the trenches.

        • ah, Steve, it is awful, the loss of control -and dammit it just reinforces the truth – WE ARE NEVER IN CONTROL. How do we humans ride THAT wave??? I guess by knowing we can make choices and hope to hell they’ll see us through. Yup, we’ll both be in the trenches together, but how ’bout we play that music on that playlist you made last year. Man, I am obsessed with hearing those songs again! We can hunker down, and listen – see if we receive any messages about LIFE without the constant static of this whole clusterfuck of devastation. Take good care of yourself, be as gentle and kind to you as I know you are to others.

    • Thank you. People have been sending me articles on this topic, and I’ve learned a lot about how survivors of cancer feel the same way – that we’re not prepared nearly enough for “what’s next.” Maybe it will be the next frontier.

  5. Pingback: A Guide for Post-Cancer Patients and their Caregivers, by Steve Safran | Blooms and Bubbles

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