Coping With Emotions

Cancer, PTSD and What You Can Do If You Experience Both

People with strong social support and good relationships with their care providers have a lower risk of PTSD. This support also helps you recover if you struggle with PTSD at any point in your experience with cancer.

Being diagnosed with cancer is terrifying — not only if you’re a patient or in remission, but for your family members as well. That fear can linger and develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Doctors are becoming more aware of the prevalence of cancer PTSD among patients. Recognizing the signs and maintaining a strong relationship with your care team are keys to overcoming any lingering effects.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can cause severe stress that can continue through testing, treatment and even remission. PTSD symptoms can show up right away or years after treatment. Many people who survive cancer still fear recurrence, which also fuels PTSD’s development.

How Cancer and Post-Traumatic Stress Are Related

Recent studies show the prevalence of either PTSD or post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) in cancer patients. PTSS has similar symptoms but is less severe than PTSD. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that more than one-third of long-term survivors of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (an average of 12 years) experienced PTSD. In 2013, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that nearly one in four women newly diagnosed with breast cancer experienced PTSD symptoms.

According to the National Cancer Institute, definitive risk factors aren’t yet known, as some studies don’t show a correlation between type of cancer, severity or time. Regardless, if you experience cancer recurrence, are diagnosed at a later stage, experienced a lengthy treatment or if you have had previous trauma or psychological problems, you should look out for it.

How You Can Spot It

Anxiety is a normal part of cancer. When feelings become extreme and interfere with your daily life, however, you should talk to your health care provider. Some common symptoms of PTSD you should look out for if you or a loved one are dealing with cancer include nightmares or flashbacks, trouble concentrating or sleeping, self-destructive behavior like alcohol or drug abuse or sustained feelings of fear, guilt, helplessness or horror, as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America describes.

How You Can Treat It

One of the best ways to prevent or manage PTSD is to ensure you have plenty of support. People who have good social support, receive clear information about their disease and have open relationships with their health care team are less likely to develop PTSS or PTSD. Seek out treatment early, particularly if you’re also undergoing cancer treatment. Your mental health is a vital part of your overall health and ability to fight cancer. Here are some treatments you can seek out:

  • Psychotherapy: You may try group therapy or one-on-one sessions with a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy is another option that teaches skills to manage stress and replace negative ways of thinking with more productive ways.
  • Support Groups: You can meet with other people going through the same issues and compare coping mechanisms. They also help your learn more about your disease and help you feel more in control.
  • Medications: Medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, may also help lessen the severity of cancer, PTSD and other overwhelming feelings you experience.

Cancer, PTSD and Family Members

If you’re a caregiver, you can also suffer from PTSD, especially if your child has cancer. One study found that about 20 percent of families who had a teenager that survived childhood cancer had at least one parent with PTSD symptoms, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. As a caregiver, you go through the trauma along with your loved one, especially if you lost someone with cancer. Look for symptoms and talk to a professional if you think you have post-traumatic stress.

UVA Cancer Center has a range of resources including psychologists, social workers, patient navigators and support groups to help patients and families cope with the struggles that accompany cancer.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney