My life changed when my dad got diagnosed with two cancers in 2022, both in good ways and bad ways. While my family has not been immune to trauma, this diagnosis was not one I could have ever predicted. Navigating this journey as a family has been a rollercoaster, but I couldn’t be prouder of my family for how we’ve handled it all. When I moved home after graduating from college in May of 2023, I knew I would be entering an incredibly tough summer. The looming date of the June 9th surgery had been present in my mind since the moment it was scheduled, a feeling that was occupying the minds of everyone in my family. I knew that the summer would be one of the hardest ones of my life, and even though I knew in my heart that my dad would be okay, I was still terrified.
The week and a half spent in the hospital was one of the most draining weeks of my life. Going back and forth from our house to his room at OHSU, sitting and waiting for long hours, the list goes on. While his surgery went smoothly and he had the most incredible team of doctors ensuring his safety, he had an incident the day after his surgery where we weren’t sure if he was going to be okay. It was terrifying, but the point of this post isn’t necessarily to go into detail about the trauma itself. The point of this post, instead, is to talk about how I’ve learned to heal from this trauma from the perspective of being his daughter, and a caregiver.
It’s been 8 months since the surgery, and my dad is in a much better spot. He has minimal symptoms on a daily basis, and we haven’t needed to schedule his next surgery yet, giving us all time to live our lives fairly normally. However, even after these 8 months at home, I still get triggered, and one moment can send me back into it all.
Even when you’re in an amazing state mentally, you can get triggered. While I’m similar to my dad in probably hundreds of ways, one thing I did not get from him was a super optimistic outlook about his diagnosis. As a patient, his emotions fluctuate around his diagnosis and how much he wants to face it each day, and his way of healing is his own. For me, as both his daughter who loves him and a caregiver, not a day goes by where I'm not thinking about the fact that he has cancer. Because of this, I feel that I get triggered more often.
The triggers can be anything, and something I’ve learned is that just because you’re triggered does not mean that you haven’t healed, or aren’t still continuing to heal. If anything, I think that being triggered shows you ARE healing, because it forces you to confront those hidden emotions, feel it, and move forward.
I was driving my dads car today and took a route to an eye doctor's appointment that was an identical route to my daily commute to the hospital in June. When I saw the turn I would make to go to the hospital, I froze, and immediately started crying in my car. This isn’t the first time this happened. I’ve been triggered by listening to a song I listened to in June, eating foods we ate at the hospital, or even just driving my dad’s car. And of course, the biggest triggers of them all, are when my dad has worse symptom days, and CAT scan days. Any reminder of days in the hospital, the terrifying incident that occurred post-surgery, or going through that process again are incredibly tough to process, but I don’t think I would be where I am in my healing without them.
There’s no textbook way to handle triggers. Every person is different and responds in different ways. So for me, here the main three ways I handle them:
Cry. It. Out. When the emotions are that big, there’s usually nothing you can do at first but feel it, and let it all out. I always cry when I’m triggered until I feel like it’s partially cleared.
Talk to someone who gets it, or is willing to listen. I am beyond fortunate to have an amazing support system of people who are there for me unconditionally. Whether it be texting or talking to my brother, getting the biggest hug in the world from my mom, calling my wonderful cousin Maddie, or talking to any of my incredible friends, letting the words out can be so healing, and remind me that I am safe and supported.
Perspective taking. This can’t really be done until you are out of the triggered state, but once I feel more grounded, I remind myself of how far my family has come through this trauma. I remind myself that right now, my dad is safe and okay, and that I am safe and okay. When I ground, and take a step back, it all seems more bearable.
I’m moving to Los Angeles at the end of this month, and even though this is my dad’s least favorite thing in the world, my main guilt about leaving is “how the hell can I leave my dad and move after everything that’s happened, and knowing there is a long journey ahead?” Truthfully, there’s no right answer to that question. I think I will always feel a little bit of guilt, because I love my family more than anything in the world. But here’s what I do know: right now, my dad is okay, my mom is okay, my brother is okay (and of course, our dog Cleo is okay). He’s in incredible hands while I’m not there. They will be okay when I leave, and if they aren’t, I will come home. Sometimes, a simple reminder like that is all it takes to breathe, and realize it’s time for me to move forward too, just as they all have. At the very core, I am incredibly lucky. I have an amazing support system, he has an amazing team of doctors, and I have gotten through some of the hardest months of my life, just like my dad has. So maybe I do have a little bit of his positive outlook after all, because truthfully, I know that my family will continue to be okay, as we always have.