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Overcoming PTSD after losing my mom to melanoma

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Liz_Hill_112513.jpgBy Liz Hill

When my mom was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, I became her main caregiver. For two years, I cared for her through several surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy. I drove her from our home in Louisiana to MD Anderson, and stayed there with her for weeks at a time.

After my mom died, I felt lost. I kept thinking I needed to be taking Mom's temperature, giving her medicine, sitting with her, holding her hand, something. Mom hadn't even been 70 years old. Watching an exceptionally physically and mentally strong woman just slip away was one of the hardest things I have had to endure.

Coping with losing my mom to melanoma
A few days after my mom's memorial service, I went back to work and tried to keep my mind focused, but it was difficult. After work, I returned home, got in the shower and cried.

But this behavior was so unlike me. I was my mother's daughter. I came from a long line of strong women. I thought I needed to just suck it up and get it together. But I couldn't. No matter how many friends I leaned on, no matter how much I prayed, no matter how much I cried, the sadness just wouldn't go away. After about six months, I just couldn't take it anymore.

I decided to see a psychiatrist. I literally picked a name off my insurance provider's list. I wanted a therapist away from my small hometown, where everyone knows everyone. So every Friday, I drove an hour to meet with a stranger and talk.

Therapy after cancer loss: my PTSD diagnosis
I cried so much during the initial meeting that I thought she would tell me I needed more help than she could provide. But she told me to come back the following Friday.

On the second visit, I took a psychiatric evaluation test. The test indicated that I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was shocked. I thought this is something only soldiers who have been to war get, not caregivers of a cancer patient.

As it turned out, my psychiatrist's specialty is PTSD. She has treated a lot of people in law enforcement, and since I was once a police officer and now work in public safety, we were a perfect fit.

I went to therapy for six weeks, and it was a tremendous help.

Learning to remember the good times
My psychiatrist gave me a lot to think about. But I think her greatest advice was when she explained crying to me.

She said to think of it like a bucket of water. Every now and then, we need to dip into that bucket, or the water becomes stale, stagnant and just nasty. But, we also don't want to dump the whole bucket out at once.

So every now and again, I dip in the bucket and remember the good times I had with my mom: planting trees together in the backyard, eating her famous egg salad sandwiches and laughing together.

The first Christmas without mom was not as difficult, and I believe it was because of my treatment.

The sadness will never completely go away, but because of my PTSD treatment, I can handle it better.

Liz Hill cared for her mother throughout her melanoma treatment. Her mother passed away in 2010, but left her with a lifetime of lessons, including to the importance of protecting her skin. Now, Liz travels from her home in Louisiana to MD Anderson's Cancer Prevention Center for annual checkups.

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