A man in bed clutching his covers after having a nightmare

How Events Can Trigger Nightmares About Relapse

Thirteen years after my fourth stem cell transplant, I don’t worry about relapse as much as I once did. With each year, the fear fades away and then fades some more. My concerns are more about neuropathy and graft vs. host disease, most recently in my fingernails.

So it took a while for me to figure out why I was having relapse nightmares. I finally did realize the trigger, but first, let me give you the lay of the land.

Dream number one: fears of a relapse

The first in the series started out inauspiciously. Thankfully for my mood when I woke up, it took a turn for the better. I dreamt I thought I had petechiae on my thighs. These are, as the Mayo Clinic explains, “Pinpoint, round spots that appear on the skin as a result of bleeding. The bleeding causes the petechiae to appear red, brown or purple. Petechiae (puh-TEE-kee-ee) commonly appear in clusters and may look like a rash. Usually flat to the touch, petechiae don't lose color when you press on them.”1

They have a lot of causes, but in my case, they were a sign of low platelets. And low platelets, along with other low counts, signaled to my doctor that something was very wrong when I went to him in 2003, complaining of fatigue.

In the dream, I thought the petechiae were a sign that my platelets were dropping and that I was relapsing. Then I realized they were just some kind of rash. Phew!

Dream number two: more relapse fears

Next in the series came a problem with my blood counts. They had gone down. In real life, this was a sign that I was relapsing. In the dream, I was relapsing and needed treatment. And the treatment was: a diet with no sugar or carbs. I didn’t want to do it! But I was going to have to. I guess if you compare this to the real-life treatment of chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant, it was not so bad.

Dream number three: even more fears

Then came another. In this dream, I hadn’t looked at my blood counts. This mirrors what happened at my most recent visit. Melissa, my nurse practitioner, said my counts were all good. I said I didn’t need to see. This was such a change from all the other times when I hung on every number.

In the dream, my mother was there. She looked at the blood counts. Next thing I knew, the scene switched to a hospital exam room. I felt a sense of dread. Something was wrong. I would need to see a doctor to find out the details. This isn’t exactly what happened, but it follows a similar trajectory of low blood counts leading to doctor visit leading to another doctor visit, bone marrow biopsy, and diagnosis.

Why was this happening now? I thought and thought and thought and then…the lightbulb went off.

The anniversary of when I got bad news

The date of the Boston Marathon was approaching. The day of the Boston Marathon, in 2007, a friend drove me to Dana-Farber for an appointment. When I got there, my doctor told me the results of my last bone marrow biopsy. I had graft failure. I had not relapsed, which was good, but I had no more donor cells in my marrow, which was bad. “Your marrow is basically empty,” he said, or something to that effect.

I hadn’t been feeling well, and I had a fever. He said he couldn’t let me go home. I was going to have to stay in the hospital while the immediate problem got straightened out.

My sister, who lived nearby, was away. The friend who had driven me was kind enough to go to Diane’s house to get some clothes for me to wear. (I could have worn hospital gowns, but I was already depressed, and the thought of not having comfortable clothes made me feel even worse.) She brought back some comfortable Gap clothes for me to put on while I was there.

I learned I would need to get chemotherapy all over again. I would need another stem cell transplant and another donor. Those things did eventually happen.

Anniversary triggered my nightmares

And this must have been why I was having all those dreams.

Do any events or anniversaries “trigger” you to bring back painful memories? It definitely natural if they do!
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