Could you have cancer-related PTSD?

December 27, 2018 | by City of Hope

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with cancer, it’s normal to feel stressed, overwhelmed and scared. Adjusting to a new way of life during treatment can also be incredibly difficult, and sometimes it just feels like everything is moving too fast.
“Many patients can experience difficulties with sleep, focus and changes in their mood after being diagnosed and going through treatment,” said Jaroslava Salman, M.D., F.A.C.L.P., assistant professor of psychiatry in the Department of Supportive Care Medicine at City of Hope. “That’s relatively common. But for a smaller group of people, learning that they have cancer and the events that surround that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Addressing Emotional Health

Research indicates that one in five people with cancer have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or some of the condition’s symptoms several months after diagnosis.  Additionally, studies show that close family members of the person with cancer can also develop PTSD.
“Mental well-being is an important predictor of recovery,” said Salman. “Anxiety and depression impact your ability to take care of yourself, to adhere to treatments and to have a good quality of life. That’s why, at City of Hope, we recognize the importance of whole-patient care that includes addressing the psychological and social impact of cancer.”

PTSD Symptoms

In order to be diagnosed with a fully developed case of PTSD, you need to meet a specific set of criteria. However, many people also experience some but not all of these symptoms, which still affect their relationships and their ability to function, Salman explained. PTSD symptoms include:
  • Having unwanted and disturbing thoughts or memories
  • Reliving negative experiences
  • Having distressing dreams
  • Avoiding conversations, objects or situations that are reminders of the traumatic event
  • Experiencing mood changes like depression, anxiety, anger or detachment
  • Being on edge (e.g. startling easily, being irritable, having angry outbursts or being hypervigilant)
  • Having trouble sleeping

PTSD Treatment and Supportive Care

“It’s important to pay attention to your emotional health and get the care you need during a trying time,” Salman said. If you’re feeling anxious, depressed or any of the cluster of symptoms that make up PTSD, ask to be referred to a therapist.
A psychologist or psychiatrist can assess whether you have PTSD and recommend further treatment. Going to counseling sessions can help you gain awareness of your feelings and reactions, change your thinking and responses, and give you tools to manage anxiety. Medications for insomnia or anxiety may help as well.
Many of our cancer centers also offer services like talking with a chaplain (a spiritual counselor who provides guidance to people of all faiths) or social worker (a person who helps you through various life challenges during treatment), or attending support groups. “For some people, sharing their experiences in a patient support group with people who are going through the same thing is hugely beneficial,” Salman said. “It helps them know they’re not alone and validates their feelings.”
By facing emotional difficulties and working through them, you may even find that the journey changes your perspective on life. “Many people experience cancer-related post-traumatic growth, which allows them to reassess their values and see new opportunities,” Salman said. “It can bring about new or enhanced spirituality and an increased appreciation of life’s gifts.”
Learn more about the resources City of Hope offers to provide emotional, social and spiritual support during cancer treatment. Visit our Living with Cancer site for more information on coping and managing stress and anxiety.
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