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CANCER AND PTSD Run Silent-Run Deep

By Susan Scharfman

“…Slowly, slowly the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise, which only slowly deepens its terrible ache, till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible after-effects have to be encountered at their worst.”—D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterly’s Lover, 1928)

The eloquence of early twentieth century writers notwithstanding, today’s prose would probably lead to a quick internet link: PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, twenty-first century terminology for delayed reaction to everything from school shootings to rape. My job as a Foreign Service officer had me working at our embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War. After trying to survive for two years on the inside of war, PTSD and cancer manifested later on in my life, (1) from the emotionally shattering effects of the war itself, and (2) from a poisonous substance I thought little of at the time.

Since there is no history of breast cancer in my family, the logical conclusion was that my excessive exposure to Agent Orange or dioxin, the toxic defoliant used extensively in Vietnam was the culprit. FYI many returning GI’s suffered from cancer-related illnesses due to exposure to dioxin (see:

Because of strict curfews following the Tet Offensive, government civilians like me spent considerable time on the rooftops of our hotels. I had a front row seat to beautiful downtown Saigon and to American aircraft swooping and looping in the distance, spraying Agent Orange around the perimeter of the city. The herbicide dioxin was meant to kill the dense brush where the Viet Cong concealed themselves to fire their mortars at us. What we didn’t know was that the misty substance could kill us too.

I vividly remember the day I was first diagnosed with breast cancer by one of the most prominent specialists in Washington, D.C. Specifically, I remember his insensitive response to my initial reaction, the arrogant manner in which he bragged about how many mastectomies he’d performed in the past, and how quickly and easily he could “lop off” a part of my body that defined my womanhood. Scared, panicky and in tears, I fled his office and into the arms of a friend who recommended a physician more concerned with the well being of his patients than with his own god-like reputation.

Prior to the breast cancer detection I had also been experiencing severe migraine headaches and anxiety attacks. Like the D.H. Lawrence quote in my opening paragraph, emotional scars are deep and can be long lasting and destructive if we are acquiescent. Doctors had me on Valium for the anxiety; nothing helped the headaches. Then I discovered a meditative spiritual path that taught me about living in the present and looking within for the peace that does not exist anywhere else. I’ve learned that the past is past and there is nothing we can do to change it, the future is now and now is all there is while we are on this earth. I no longer need Valium and the headaches have lessened in frequency.

For the thousands of women who will be threatened with breast cancer, or any other physical or mental illness, here is my wish: For you to not panic, to be treated by the right healer for you and your temperament. Get opinions from different physicians, and when possible, contact other women who have had similar illnesses. The Reach to Recovery program (see internet) is a marvelous before and after source of information and therapy for breast cancer patients. Get spiritual guidance. Be grateful for all the good in your life. I am a survivor and you can be too.

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