Understanding cancer-related post-traumatic stress disorder

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Cancer-related PTSD can occur at any point from diagnosis to surgery and/or treatment and can impact the survivor’s reintegration into their home, work and social lives. Here’s more about cancer-related PTSD and how best to deal with the symptoms.

Cancer survivors navigate emotions that range from hope and joy to trauma and trepidation as they deal with diagnosis and treatment, as well as adapting to life post-cancer. This journey is taxing and could result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For example, nearly 1 in 4 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer experienced PTSD.
Cancer experiences that may trigger PTSD vary but include:

  • the test results (diagnosis)
  • a harrowing treatment procedure
  • long hospital stays and treatment
  • cancer-related pain
  • possible recurrence of cancer

How can a cancer diagnosis lead to PTSD?

Some factors that could increase the risk of cancer-related PTSD include:

  • a low economic status
  • childhood cancer diagnosis
  • limited or negative social support
  • having PTSD or other psychological problems before being diagnosed with cancer
  • using avoidance to cope with stress

Previous trauma could also contribute to cancer-related PTSD, says Dr Eugene Allers, a psychiatrist at Life Glynnview. According to the South African Journal of Psychiatry, the lifetime prevalence of PTSD for countries with a history of violence stands at 10%. And in South Africa, where violence is rife, it stands at 2.3%.

Signs and symptoms of cancer-related PTSD

  • Nightmares or flashbacks where the content of your dreams is related to the trauma
  • Frightening and unwanted thoughts
  • Self-destructive behaviour such as abusing drugs or alcohol
  • Trouble sleeping and concentrating
  • Strong physical reactions (e.g. a racing heart) when reminded of traumatic events
  • Loss of interest in activities and relationships you once enjoyed
  • Hypervigilance and constant feelings of distress

What to do if you suspect you have cancer-related PTSD

Life Healthcare Oncologist Dr Louis Kathan suggests the below if you suspect you have cancer-related PTSD:

Connect with other survivors. Spending time with those you can relate to can help you to feel supported and understood. You can join cancer support groups or cancer-related educational programmes.

Talk to your doctor, who can refer you to a mental health specialist such as a counsellor. You can specifically ask for one who has dealt with cancer patients and survivors. Sharing your distress with your oncology team can also help them to support you more effectively and put you at ease.

For more cancer-related advice, read these helpful articles:

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a professional. E&OE.


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