My husband, Marc, is a veteran of the Iraq War. He served from Sept. 2001-Oct. 2004 and did an active tour of duty in Iraq. He and I didn’t meet until he was already out of the military, so I wasn’t there firsthand for his service or deployment.
It is difficult to imagine my sweet husband in an actual war zone fighting to stay alive. It is easier to picture him fighting for his country and our safety – my safety – as he is such a protector. Each of these things is true, of course. I see his battle scars in much the same way Marc sees my scars from my battle with cancer.
Our physical scars are one thing – I have one under my arm and one on my left breast, each from surgery, while Marc has a small scar across the bridge of his nose from the butt of a gun in Iraq. Then there’s the emotional scars that we each carry with us from the trauma of what we went through to stay alive.
Marc and I talk often about the similarities between fighting for your life in a war, and fighting for your life against cancer. The fight or flight instinct is the same certainly, but what we have found the most similar is the aftermath. Specifically, the post traumatic stress, or PTSD.
Marc was around for my battle with cancer and he admits that he did have some trouble handling my range of emotions during treatment, my pain from my chemo, my frustration caused by my limitations. But I think less challenging for him is empathizing with my feelings about my cancer treatment now – as it comes to a close.
I liken cancer treatment to military deployment in a way. That’s where the true battle to stay alive takes place. But after treatment, and likewise after deployment, there is still training, still the trauma and living differently, whether it be taking your tamoxifen each day and living with its many side effects, or waiting for your discharge date or learning to re-acclimate to American society when you return home.
The PTSD for both my husband and I has been a struggle. Some days are better than others for each of us. There are weeks and sometimes months where the stress doesn’t seem to overwhelm and then there is a weekend like last weekend, Memorial Day, which was stressful for each of us for different reasons.
Marc takes the time each Memorial Day to remember his friends who were lost so courageously in battle. I know that no amount of reflection on my part about what Memorial Day really means will ever truly allow me to understand how Memorial Day feels for my husband. It is a difficult day for him.
I had an ultrasound today at MGH. This may seem like nothing at all to most people. But for me, it sets off waves of panic. I know that my tamoxifen is causing my uterine fibroids to grow at an increased speed. They were already far, far larger than normal last year when I had my last ultrasound (about the size of a lemon). I can’t take the hormones that most people would take to shrink them, because these meds carry increased risk of breast cancer. Surgery may be the only option, and major surgery is just so scary. It brings back my fears of doctors and treatment and feeling helpless. It reminds me so vividly of my battle with breast cancer.
I certainly don’t mean to compare my fear about surgery with my husband’s mourning of his friends who have passed, but I do believe that at the core, the PTSD is at the root of both of our stress. It helps to live with someone who understands this type of trauma and can be supportive, helpful and empathetic.