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Home  /  Integrative Cancer Care  /  Mind  /  Feelings, Thoughts, and Beliefs  /  Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Post-traumatic Growth for Cancer Patients and Caregivers

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Post-traumatic Growth for Cancer Patients and Caregivers

By Jeannine Walston

Cancer patients and also cancer caregivers report experiencing emotions and mental states with many highs and lows, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and post-traumatic growth (PTG). Emotional extremes related to the cancer experience are not uncommon. Patience is paramount. Explore different strategies to identify what helps you the most. If you feel stuck with  challenges, try something new. Do not be afraid to ask for help.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a term for an anxiety disorder that may result from a severe trauma. The diagnosis of a life threatening illness can be traumatic. Symptoms of PTSD include fear, helplessness, horror, re-experiencing the event, avoiding reminders associated with the event, and increased stressful responses for at least one month. Studies suggest that some cancer survivors and their loved ones experience PTSD. Although uncomfortable and disturbing, it may be helpful to know that these feelings occur in some people affected by cancer. By identifying what you are thinking and feeling, and tending to your needs, you can take steps toward better coping. If you think that you might have PTSD, you may also consider talking to a mental health professional for assistance.

“Physically, cancer and cancer treatments are tremendously challenging, often requiring a combination of debilitating treatments that can continue for months or years. But effects on mental health are also common, with depression and anxiety disorders frequently reported. In fact, recent studies have shown that cancer patients and the parents of young children with cancer sometimes meet the textbook criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These mental states can cause harmful health effects of their own, compounding the challenges of treatment and disease in a damaging, downward spiral. Patients suffering from depression, anxiety, or excessive stress can have difficulty remembering things, concentrating, and making decisions. These mental health problems can also decrease patients’ motivation to complete treatment, change unhealthy practices such as smoking, and decrease their ability to cope with the demands of a rigorous treatment process. There is growing evidence that stress can directly interfere with the working of the body’s immune system and other functions.”
– Cancer Care for the Whole Patient: Meeting Psychosocial Health Needs by The National Academies’ Institute of Medicine

Studies have linked psychological distress such as ongoing depression and anxiety related symptoms with a higher risk of cancer incidence and poorer survival1.

What is post-traumatic growth (PTG)?

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a term for the positive life changes that may come from trauma. PTG is considered to be the opposite of PTSD. For some patients and caregivers, the cancer experience inspires them to question their beliefs, attitudes, life goals, and relationships. Cancer can serve as a strong catalyst, change agent, and awakener. A re-evaluation process, which can at first be traumatic, may ultimately create healthy changes2-7. Studies suggest that some cancer survivors and their loved ones who endure trauma grow from their ordeal. Specific areas of PTG include appreciation of life, personal strength, and improved ability in relating to others.

How might suffering and wounding be transformed into strength and healing?

“The healing of our present woundedness may lie in recognizing and reclaiming the capacity we have to heal each other, the enormous power in the simplest of human relationships: the strength of a touch, the blessing of forgiveness, the grace of someone else taking you just as you are and finding in you an unsuspected goodness. Everyone alive has suffered. It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our own experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal. Becoming expert has turned out to be less important than remembering and trusting the wholeness in myself and everyone else. Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. Only other wounded people can understand what is needed, for the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.”
– Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, Kitchen Table Wisdom

How might extreme life challenges impact individuals as well as societies?

“Throughout history humans striving to transform adversity into strength consistently possess a sense of moral commitment, a sense that personal and group trauma must be converted into a community asset, not just a personal asset or catastrophe. From such traumatic origins springs the co-construction or reconstruction of civilization.”
– Sandra L. Bloom, MD, Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis

What support is available for PTSD and/or PTG?

Along with a qualified provider, many resources, tools, and techniques to deal with PTSD and engage PTG are available throughout Jeannine Walston’s website, especially in other articles throughout the BodyMind,  Spirit, Social, Environmental, and other sections. You can also learn more with various forms of support from a Cancer Coach.

1. Hamer M, Chida Y, Molloy GJ. Psychological distress and cancer mortality. J Psychosom Res. 2009 Mar;66(3):255-8. Epub 2009 Jan 16. PubMed PMID: 19232239.
2. Mosher CE, Danoff-Burg S, Brunker B. Post-traumatic growth and psychosocial adjustment of daughters of breast cancer survivors. Oncol Nurs Forum. 2006 May 3;33(3):543-51. PubMed PMID: 16676011.
3. Thornton AA, Perez MA. Posttraumatic growth in prostate cancer survivors and their partners. Psychooncology. 2006 Apr;15(4):285-96. PubMed PMID: 16035136.
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survivors. Psychooncology. 2004 Apr;13(4):260-8. PubMed PMID: 15054730.
6. Cordova MJ, Andrykowski MA. Responses to cancer diagnosis and treatment: posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth. Semin Clin Neuropsychiatry. 2003 Oct;8(4):286-96. Review. PubMed PMID: 14613054.
7. Cordova MJ, Cunningham LL, Carlson CR, Andrykowski MA. Posttraumatic growth following breast cancer: a controlled comparison study. Health Psychol. 2001 May;20(3):176-85. PubMed PMID: 11403215.