Dealing with PTSD as a Cancer Survivor

Cancer Survivor PTSD

When you hear that someone has PTSD, you might think it is a person who was in the military and fought in a war. In many cases, you would be correct. However, you can experience post-traumatic stress disorder as a cancer survivor, as well.

Think about it: you have been through war. You have battled for your very life. Danger lurked at every follow up scan and checkup. Even now, life might feel like a minefield you have to tiptoe through.

If you are grappling with crushing stress, anxiety and other symptoms of PTSD, rest assured that you are not overreacting. Post-cancer anxiety disorders are very common and quite understandable. The good news is that PTSD is also highly treatable.

Symptoms of PTSD

Are you simply anxious following your diagnosis and treatment, or could you genuinely have post-traumatic stress disorder? Learning the signs of PTSD can help you determine whether you might need to look deeper into the unease and tension you are enduring.

  • Re-experiencing traumatic events, such as nightmares or flashbacks, often triggered by something that reminds you of the event.
  • Avoiding situations that remind you of a traumatic event. For instance, visiting your doctor’s office could take you back to the day of your initial diagnosis, which may lead you to skipping or postponing appointments.
  • Negative changes in longstanding beliefs or feelings. You could become generally distrustful or pessimistic about life. You might notice an adverse change in the way you view close relationships. You may block out or be unable to talk about certain events.
  • Feeling continually edgy. It can become difficult for you to sleep or concentrate. You might startle easily. You may feel more comfortable when you sit with your back to a wall.

If you have any or all of these symptoms and they have lasted longer than three months, disrupt your daily life and greatly distress you, you might be experiencing PTSD.

Managing Post-Traumatic Stress

Talk to your doctor or a member of your oncology team, such as your social worker or counselor if you think you might be suffering from PTSD. They may be able to provide treatment for you or they will refer you to someone who is better equipped to do so. Receiving prompt attention for PTSD can help improve your quality of life more quickly and completely.

That being said, even if you have been experiencing this overwhelming disorder for months or years, it is never too late to seek help and get better. PTSD treatment options have improved significantly in recent years and can have an immensely positive impact on your overall wellbeing.

The National Center for PTSD recommends any combination of the following four treatment options.

  • Cognitive processing therapy, which teaches you to reframe negative thoughts. You would typically have weekly group or individual sessions for about three months. More than half of those who undergo this form of psychotherapy experience significant improvement.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which helps you process and make sense of your trauma. You would typically have weekly individual sessions for two to three months. Approximately 53 percent of people who undergo this form of psychotherapy see vast improvement.
  • Prolonged exposure, which teaches you how to face your fears and regain control. You would typically have weekly individual sessions for about three months. More than 50 percent of those who undergo this form of psychotherapy find relief from PSTD.
  • Antidepressant medications, including SSRIs and SNRIs, help restore the balance of naturally occurring chemicals in your brain. Approximately 42 percent of people who receive this treatment successfully manage their PTSD.

Other Considerations

Some symptoms of PTSD can be caused by other mental health problems, such as depression. Talking to your doctor or a mental health professional, such as a therapist, can help you receive an accurate diagnosis and get back on the road to feeling like yourself again.


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