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Unexpected Triggers

By: Kayla Brown with contributions from other teens, young adults and parents

Who knew I would experience a cancer trigger while driving in the car, listening to pop music on the radio? Not me. That’s because triggers are different for everyone, especially unexpected ones. 

I’m not sure where I was going, but I remember there was an advertisement for a Taylor Swift concert And they started talking about some kid having cancer. And something in me broke. I started crying, shaking. I quickly changed the station and tried to move on from it, but the advertisement ran through my head for hours. I have no idea why the ad caused me these emotions, but I know it was an unexpected trigger. It was something I never saw coming. 

There are so many other examples of unexpected triggers out there, probably enough to write a whole book, but here are just a few: 

  • TV Commercials watching TV is an everyday occurrence for many people, one that involves seeing at least a few commercials. And sometimes, you may see one with the bald heads of kids sitting in hospital beds, pushing their IV carts around or discussing their diagnosis. Seeing this could be hard for anyone, but for someone who went through that themselves, it can bring up all the emotions they felt going through it. This is an unexpected trigger because you never know when the commercial will come on. You also never know if it will cause you to shake and cry or react like any other commercial. 
  • Attending THONTHON is a yearly dance marathon recognizing the efforts made to end childhood cancer. Four Diamonds’ families join the festivities alongside the THON members and the general public. While THON can be great for some, it can also be an unexpected trigger. It can be overwhelming and uncomfortable, especially when trying to move on with your life as it was for an AYA Council member’s daughter.  
  • Someone taking a lot of pills – it is almost inevitable that you will take several pills throughout your cancer treatment and even months or years later. For some, taking all those pills is a breeze; they can do it in one swig. For others, it may not have been a pleasant experience. And when you see someone else doing the same, it might unexpectedly take you back as it does for AYA council member Colton. It could be shocking, scary and uncomfortable.   
  • Specific scents of hand sanitizers and soaps – the hospital has distinct smells that you do not easily forget. One type, in particular, is hand sanitizer and soap. You smell it anytime someone comes in and takes a squirt. Maybe you even used it yourself. Either way, you know the smell. One AYA council member recalls their heart rate increasing anytime they smell it because it reminds them of the hospital.  
  • Going to the ER – this is more of an unexpected expected trigger. When many cancer survivors go to a hospital or ER, they expect to have some reaction. But you never truly know how you will respond until you get there. Sometimes, it can be an unemotional experience. Other times, you could be sweating bullets and tapping your foot with nerves. And unfortunately, it can be even worse. Your brain could convince itself and you that the cancer is back, even if everything seems normal. It all depends on the day, which makes it an unexpected expected trigger. 

Unexpected triggers are a bit unfair since they are unavoidable, at least the first time because you are not expecting them. But you should not be ashamed of them either. They happen because you went through such a traumatic experience and are still in the process of healing.  

“Getting ambushed by unexpected triggers is a part of surviving cancer. Even when that happens, never underestimate your ability to bounce back. You conquered cancer, you can conquer an unpleasant memory,” said Dr. George Blackall, psychologist at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital. 

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