Cancer, PTSD, and the Unexpected Teachings of Drag Racing

In January 2014, two months into a meditation teacher-training course, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 bowel cancer. A tight, round-robin tournament ensued for the next two years, with the players radiation, chemo and surgery on one side of the pitch; mindfulness, loving kindness and gratitude on the other.

While the beam of radiation hit my backside, I’d practice loving kindness — to the beam itself, to the technicians, to the genius who’d invented the machine. When fear shouted its dire warnings, my breath would step in to referee and calm things down, and when I was hooked up to the chemo drip, I would fill myself with gratitude too — for the treatment, for my healing, and for the dear nurses in day oncology.

With my brain on fire, swollen and inflamed by the 48 hour stints of IV chemo of essentially liquid platinum, I devoured articles and studies on neuroscience. I tried to understand and make sense of the wild swings of emotion my trigger-happy amygdala (the centre for the fight flight response in the brain) would illicit from my overheated limbic system. Knowing that there was a biochemical cause and effect here was of great comfort to me: my toxic state of fried adrenals could be balanced by the cooling that meditation provided. I didn’t have control over much, but I COULD choose to breathe: while I was cooking from the inside out, I could calm things down from the outside in.

I practiced mindfulness of thoughts and emotions, tonglen (a Tibetan practice of taking in and sending out energy), mindfulness of the breath, single pointed concentration, chanting- you name it. And while the circumstances I found myself in were shocking, and while the course of action I was on threatened to derail me, my meditation practice gave me the space to find humour, joy and presence in its midst. I wrote hearty email updates to my friends, and each time the life stakes were raised I felt as though my essence had become heightened. I could handle this. Imagine what it’ll feel like to cross that finishing line! Imagine the perspective I will have gained, the insights, the equanimity!

My amazing kids and husband were on this ride too. I would look at them, particularly on the wild-eyed days just after being unplugged, and marvel at the way they absorbed seeing their mum/wife going a little bit postal. They were so incredibly generous at a time when their own limbic systems were getting frizzled too.

In the weeks in between treatments and surgeries where I’d bounce back a little, I would head into our youngest’s classroom at school. The children and I would practice mindfulness together, and sing songs I’d written for them. They probably weren’t aware of how deeply precious this time was for me. I cherished it. It helped me lay down a neural satnav map of where I would head after this was all over and things went back to normal. My driving thought was always ‘just get across the finish line!’ Once I was there, and had made it unscathed, I would dive in again, transformed by the experience, ready to go. It fed me, drove me forward.

In October 2015, I had my final chemo treatment. I felt jubilation, gratitude, relief and a sense of triumph. I was there! I had crossed the line!

Now was the time where I’d be like those cancer survivors I’d read about, who had become completely chilled out, and ‘no-longer-sweating-the-small-stuff’ calm. After all, I’d graduated as a meditation teacher hadn’t I? I practiced every day, or close to it. I understood what stress looked like, what the effects were on the brain and the body. Surely my all clear would equal an absence of stress? Surely I would emerge from this energised, grateful, motivated and peaceful, setting up meditation classes all over the place, teaching in schools and sharing what I’d learnt, all the while parenting like I was Mrs Equanimity??

Didn’t happen.

Firstly, I needed to sleep for about a year — almost every day, at some point. Many days I would head straight back to bed as soon as the kids had gone to school.

Any sense of presence I had felt during my treatment fled completely. Suddenly I felt socially isolated, awkward with my closest friends, shy even, heart racing during conversations, not sure of which Kate I was any more; making plans to see people and always cancelling, overwhelmed at the prospect of having to show up.

Secondly, instead of feeling calm and chilled, my fried nervous system rendered me pretty feral. With no resources left in my adrenal glands, I became a hot ball of emotional reactivity. Summer holidays, to which I’d looked forward with a wistful and misty-eyed yearning, were intensely stressful. I felt shame at my inability to enjoy its moments — after all, I was here, wasn’t I? Alive? My short-term memory was shot, my feelings of anger and irritability were out of proportion and off the scale.

Turns out this is a bit what post-traumatic stress looks like.

As I hadn’t returned from a war zone, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could be experiencing it — I just thought I’d come through this experience of cancer and become a fairly crap version of my former self. Until a homeopath I visited pointed out that, in fact, I had. Returned from a war zone. As I sat reading the list of physical and emotional symptoms of PTSD, I wept as a large rope began to unknot itself in my belly.

Which brings me to a Wednesday afternoon in August of last year:

We had all arrived home from school, tumbling inside, school bags peeling off in the hallway like a clump of discarded chrysalises. I was exhausted, and tunnel-vision-focussed on diving into bed for a desperately needed kip before the evening routine kicked in. At which point my then 12 year old son announces “Mum! Footy practice!” Which means an instant trip across town in afternoon traffic, and a return trip at peak hour.

My heart sinks. At the same time it speeds up. My nervous system, still trigger-happy and with no fuel in its tank, slams its foot on the accelerator. I find myself frantically grabbing food, footy gear and water bottles for the trip. I realize how fast my system has revved. I clutch the kitchen bench with my hands shaking and my heart pounding, trying to slow myself down. I take slowing breaths and start to cry. I feel the need to apologise to my son — for being so stressed, for feeling so ashamed, for flipping out, for having crossed the finish line and yet not being the uber calm, chilled out survivor that I’d dreamt I’d be.

And this is what my wise, kind, car-loving son says:

“It’s OK Mum. It’s a bit like drag racing.”

(Excuse me, what?)

“After you cross the finishing line, the car keeps accelerating. It has to. It’s hit warp speed.”

I grab onto these words like a life buoy. My mind puts them all in bold, so I will too. We get in the car and as we drive I ask him to tell me everything he knows about this. My nervous system, my adrenal glands, my amygdala — right now we’re all ears. Tears roll down my cheeks as I listen.

During a drag race of a quarter of a mile, the car moves up through every gear to reach its fastest possible speed.

Once the car crosses the finishing line the race is over. But not for the car! It continues to accelerate, due simply to the momentum it’s gained.

(Light bulbs going off here.)

‘How does the car stop?’ I ask, knowing the answer to this is so important my brain and I will hear it with reverb.

The first step is to take the foot off the accelerator. If you try to brake at this point the car will flip.

‘And then?’

(Breath held.)

After the speed drops a bit you can use the parachute, but not too soon or the car will still flip. You can’t use the brake yet. It’ll flip. Only after the parachute has slowed the car down significantly can you think about using the brake.

My brain repeats this, and then my voice: “If you brake too soon the car will flip…if you brake too soon the car will flip…”

Oh and it takes the car almost twice the length of the race to be able to come to a complete stop after it’s crossed the finishing line, he adds.

And there it is.

My son describes the precise biomechanics of my experience. There is a process. It’s physics. A trajectory I’m on. It’s not me having failed — it’s Science, people!!

The journey of cancer treatment is a breakneck, four-to-the-floor, warp speed drag race. The end is a ¼ mile down the road if you’re lucky and don’t blow it before you get there. Once the whistle blows you’d better hold on: its white-knuckle plummets and twists threaten to throw you into the abyss at either side of the road, or at least screech to a hair-raising halt so that you are forced to stare down into the depths, gasping for breath.

I’m lucky, and I realize this. I peered into that abyss many times. And I am here still, a fact for which I am unutterably grateful.

Perhaps I am at the stage now of needing to realize just how breakneck my own warp speed was. The “Far-Out-I-Had-Cancer!!”, “Shit-I-Could-Have-Died!!” stage. I need to know this fully, let myself actually feel that terror, look into the abyss slowly again, maintaining eye-contact with it — and thus begin to take my foot off the accelerator. Every attempt I’d made at stopping the car before now had been unsafe and perilous: the car was still moving. Not only moving, but across the finish line and still recklessly accelerating.

Now, with my meditation, I can bring everything back to a simple instruction: ‘Foot off the gas, Kate’. Just that. It helps everything unhook. My nervous system can stand down. It’s worked so hard for so long. I can sit with my cushion next to the abyss, knowing it’s there, letting it be there, and know that I am safe. I can peer over if I need to, and allow the fear to rise up, letting it take up residence once again in my heart, alongside all of the other compadres that are welcome there in their glorious, riotous mess. It may come, and then go. And sure, things speed up from every now and then, but my position at the end of the race tells me it’s OK for this to take time. It can take double if it needs to.

And hey, who knows? Any time soon I’ll be listening out for the telltale joyous whoosh and scoop of the parachute that’s shooting out from the back of my car.

Perhaps it’s already here.

Like what you read? Give Kate Oliver a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.