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Breast Cancer, PTSD, and the Annual October Cancer Coachella

Let’s talk. Truth be known, Pinktober is PTSDtober for me. Everywhere I turn, I am reminded of this battle with an invisible sneaky enemy that may or may not still be invading my body.

Tammey Grable-Woodford bilateral mastectomy
Post bilateral mastectomy and prior to beginning reconstruction. The realities of breast amputation.

Cutesy and irrelevant sayings, like “Save Second Base” and “Save the Ta-Tas” are everywhere I look… from billboards to t-shirts to social media posts… Then there is “National No Bra Day,” which is somehow supposed to bring awareness to breast cancer. Newsflash… many of us post breast cancer folks are all the time braless already, and our breast cancer brothers didn’t wear one in the first place. Frankly, those of us in the trenches prioritize saving lives over saving the “ta-tas.”

Then, there is the never-ending commercialization represented by a sea of pink tchotchkes, which rarely actually donate to the cause. Lost in all the marketing and cutesy cancer spin are the men and women who are literally facing a life and death diagnosis.

Let me pause here to acknowledge that I may take some heat for my spin on this month dedicated to awareness. I also know that I will receive some private notes for speaking aloud the undercurrent around this Cancer Coachella. Because as women, shame is the useless emotion that seems to follow us around like an irremovable ball and chain. But if cancer has taught me anything, it has taught me how very important it is to not accept or own the opinions and emotions that others will try to place on me.

But if cancer has taught me anything, it has taught me how very important it is to not accept or own the opinions and emotions that others will try to place on me.

Now before you go thinking I am angry, I am not. My intention is to offer a different perspective and the hope that as a society, we can begin to redefine what awareness means. That we can consider putting this energy into action for research, for support of men and women facing insurmountable breast cancer treatment bills, for low-income individuals to receive screening, for awareness of male breast cancer, for science. That we can raise awareness and funds to better understand why my black breast cancer sisters and brothers suffer far worse outcomes than their white cohort.

Cancer is exhausting. It is life-altering. It is body altering. It comes with the gifts of ongoing screening, ongoing battles with insurance companies, body modifications. For many, there is the loss of feeling coupled with chronic pain (yes, seriously). It comes with regular mental health battles of anxiety, depression, fear. For many of us, it takes our homes, our jobs, our savings, our security, our retirement, and sometimes even our relationships.

It can leave you feeling like a temporary person clinging to a random piece of flotsam as you watch your freshly torpedoed life capsize behind you.

And then Cancer Coachella comes on the scene with a festival message and the undercurrent of “you should be happy and grateful that you are still alive.” I am. But that doesn’t remove the realities that come with cancer.

So what is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? defines it as an anxiety disorder that a person may develop after experiencing a frightening or life-threatening situation. They go on to say that nearly 1 in 4 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer experienced PTSD. My supposition is that it is much higher. I also think it is time that we start including male breast cancer survivors in these studies.

What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD?

The Mayo Clinic has a robust list of symptoms and points out that symptoms can start within one month of a traumatic event or sometimes not appear until years after the event. What if I were to let you in on a secret that cancer patients and survivors know, but the uninitiated may not? Cancer comes with repeated traumatization.

Symptoms can include:

  • Nightmares

  • Flashbacks

  • Avoiding places, events, or people

  • Negative thoughts about yourself, other people, the world

  • Strong feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or shame

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Feelings of fear or anger

  • Loss of interest in activities

  • Relationship challenges

  • Difficulty feeling emotions

  • Fear of hope

  • Frightening or unwanted thoughts

  • Being easily startled or frightened

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • and so much more

All this and more, before we even start talking about side effects from treatments… WOW right?

Ok, so what tools can we use if we are facing PTSD?

This is my personal toolbox, and depending on the day, I might deploy a couple of these.

1. Breathe slowly and deeply, with a focus on your breath. This will activate the part of your nervous system that helps calm your body and bring you back to the present moment.

2. Validate your experience. Please hear me; what you are experiencing is a normal response to an abnormal experience. I often acknowledge it aloud and say, “this is a perfectly logical illogical response to… because…”

3. Focus on your five senses and use the 5-4-3-2-1 tool. This process will help you focus on external factors, getting you out of your head and back into the present.

  • What do you see right now? List 5 things.

  • What do you hear right now? List 4 things.

  • What do you sense on your skin right now? List 3 things.

  • What do you smell right now? List 2 things.

  • What do you taste right now? List 1 thing.

4. Create a list of happy memories that you can access to help place your mind in a positive state.

5. Think positively for 12 seconds, but don’t just think about it; invest in feeling it. Close your eyes and feel that moment. For me, it is the feeling of warm sand beneath me, the sound of the surf, the smell and taste of the salt air, and the feeling of sunshine on my skin.

6. Laughter, it really is medicine. Find something to make you laugh, create a list. Laughter is known to boost your immune system and rewire your brain. So really, those cat videos are tools for mental health.

7. Invest in a weighted blanket. Research shows that it stimulates being held or hugged safely and firmly, reducing anxiety and insomnia.

8. Consciously plant both feet firmly into the ground to remind yourself to be present in this moment.

9. Remind yourself and rest in the realization that the only inevitable moment is this very moment you are sitting in. Right this moment. Everything before this moment is a memory. Everything after this moment is imagination. THIS is the only inevitable moment that there is.

10. Get active in counseling. Look, sometimes we need an assist. Always advocate for what you need, and for all the physical focus of cancer treatment and recovery, mental health is still not commonly addressed. If you need help, ask. If you are not validated, advocate for yourself, your wellness, and your care.

Ok, so what do we do about Cancer Coachella?

If Pinktober isn’t your thing, gently help your network understand how they can help make a more significant impact. Share with them different ways they can help bring awareness and support to those diagnosed with cancer. If it is your thing, embrace it. All this awareness has saved some lives.

My question is simply, can we go beyond the awareness hype and take this to the next level, with inclusivity. My big big questions is: Can we redirect the energy positively for maximum impact?

I am curious to know your thoughts, though. Let’s talk below.

In love and good health,


Tammey is a podcaster, blogger, motivational speaker, business consultant, advocate, and breast cancer survivor. Diagnosed with stage 3b invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC) with micrometastasis to the lymph nodes in February 2015, she now focuses on helping others create the successful and intentional life they deserve. For more information or her speaking schedule, contact Tammey. Want to help keep the microphones on? Check out the different ways you can support the show.

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