Reclaiming the Self: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Cancer 

Summary: Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that affects millions of people around the globe each year. This is diagnosed in many for more known reasons like war, crimes or violence; however, cancer and lasting medical illnesses are also beginning to trigger PTSD in men and women alike. With PTSD becoming an even more recognized mental health issue when dealing with cancer, more doctors and specialists are taking the time to address the issues. If you suspect you or your family member are dealing with PTSD or a similar mental depression or anxiety issue, encourage them to reach out to their medical care team for support, and do what you can to educate yourself about the condition so that you can assist wherever needed.

Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can be triggered by a list of things. Most often people associate PTSD with war syndrome, or the stress brought on by sexual or physical attacks. There are many things that can trigger PTSD like natural disasters, serious accidents, and violent crime. Another cause of PTSD is medical disaster and cancer.

In one study conducted by the American Cancer Society, they showed that one in four women diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018 were then diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (ACS). You may wonder how something like war and something like cancer can be triggers for the same anxiety disorder. There are obvious reasons for our soldiers to struggle after such an event, however cancer patients struggle with many of the same underlying issues. Some issues that they face are:

  • The diagnosis itself
  • Constant, chronic pain and utter discomfort
  • Invasive tests
  • Treatments that cause unbearable side effects, sometimes with no real progression
  • Unpredictable tests and results
  • Long hospital stays
  • The fear, worry and uncertainty about living and death
  • The cancer itself, or it’s return

The Signs & Symptoms of PTSD

There are signs and symptoms you can watch for in yourself, or your caretakers can detect and help you work through. It is normal for a person going through cancer and treatment to feel anxiety, worry, fear and dread. It is when these feelings never lessen or ever go away, or continue to worsen affecting daily life, that they can become a problem.

If you notice these signs and symptoms, it may be time to discuss PTSD with your person.

  • Loss of interest in activities and relationships that used to be enjoyable
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drug or alcohol abuse
  • Frightening or unwanted thoughts
  • Difficulty feeling emotions, including being non-reactive to emotional situations
  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Avoiding places, events, people, or things that bring back bad memories
  • Strong feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or shame
  • Trouble sleeping or concentrating
  • Continuous feelings of fear or anger

These symptoms can present differently in each person and can come and go without much notice. In most cases, the symptoms associated with PTSD develop within three months after the traumatic event, but they can also occur or be triggered months to years later. If you or someone you know has these symptoms for longer than a month, make an appointment to speak with your healthcare team.

Getting treatment for PTSD is vital for cancer survivors because the disorder can prevent them from seeking out the medical care and further testing needed to ensure that they are still on track for beating their cancer. Untreated mental disorders can lead to further mental issues, physical ailments and social problems; which can all lead to depression, alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, loss of relationships, employment, and more.

The Risks of PTSD

There is no clear reason why certain people develop post-traumatic stress disorder and others never do. Certain lifestyle factors may also play in to the disorder. Those who face medical crisis that were diagnosed in early childhood have a one in five chance for developing PTSD (ACS). Those medical patients who have faced years of unending treatments have a one in three chance of developing PTSD (ACS). Another world study showed that nearly twenty-percent of children diagnosed with cancer as an infant or preschooler will suffer with PTSD throughout their lives (ACS).

Post-traumatic stress disorder appears to be more common for:

  • People who use avoidance strategies to cope with stress, such as drugs or alcohol
  • People with less formal education
  • People with low or no income
  • Single people
  • People who have had PTSD or other mental health conditions before being diagnosed with cancer
  • Women from minority groups
  • People with high levels of overall stress

People who have been diagnosed with cancer and survivors are less likely to be stricken with PTSD if they:

  • Receive strong support from family and friends
  • Are given correct information about the stage of the cancer
  • Have good relationships with their health care team

PTSD can also affect caregivers and those taking care of the chronically ill. It can be very stressful and traumatic for the people we love to see us in the fight for our lives, knowing that the outcome may not always be a good one. Any caregiver may develop PTSD during their treatment, or in the years after, even with full healing and survival. One study proved that almost twenty-percent of families with a teenage cancer survivor had a parent who was experiencing or dealing with PTSD (ACS). It is common for parents of children receiving cancer treatment care to develop this disorder.

Treatment for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Thankfully, PTSD is a treatable condition. There are many methods of treatment that may benefit you, your specific symptoms and situation. Common treatments include:

  • Psychotherapy. This means talking with a mental health professional, like a counselor, who has experience treating PTSD. Some counselors specialize in helping people who have or have had cancer. Therapy can be done one-on-one, or in a group setting. Some health insurance companies pay for a portion of the treatment.
  • Medication. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can help manage PTSD symptoms, such as sadness, anxiety, and anger. Medication is often used in combination with psychotherapy.
  • Support groups. Support groups can help people cope with the emotional aspects of cancer. They provide a safe place to share experiences and learn from other people facing similar situations. Research shows that support groups can help people with cancer feel less depressed and anxious and become more hopeful. Learn more about support groups.

If you suspect you may be dealing with PTSD, talk with your health care tea, for help and to find resources you are comfortable reaching out to for assistance. Your local hospital’s social work department can help you to connect to counseling services and outside local support groups in your community. Your local health department may also have resources you can utilize to reach out for mental help assistance in a variety of ways. If you are comfortable with your place of employment, many offer mental health programs through the workplace or the listed insurance company.

It is most important to remember that mental health and stability do play a role in your overall health and healing. If you are struggling, do not hesitate to reach out for assistance to get you back on the proper path for healing.

Resources Used:


Cancer Services of North East Indiana

Reclaiming Intimacy

Back to blog