Cancer and Trauma: Adjusting to a Cancer Diagnosis

Hearing that you have cancer can result in a range of emotional, mental, behavioral and physical responses as a result of the anxiety that comes from hearing that you are facing a potentially life-threatening illness.  Examples of these responses can include feeling afraid, memory loss, indecisivness, racing thoughts, increased/decreased sleeping, fatigue, and aches and pains (Tedeschi & Moore, 2016). From there, patients begin to try to adjust to their new circumstances by meeting with medical professionals and preparing to begin treatment. 

For about 20% of patients, symptoms of post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) begin to develop during their diagnosis and treatment and may continue long after their treatment has been completed (Chan et al., 2018). Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive thoughts (e.g. nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive memories), avoidance symptoms, negative thoughts, decreased mood and increased arousal (e.g. irritability, anger, easily startled, difficulty with sleep; Tedeschi & Moore, 2016).

Some factors known to protect patients from developing PTSD including (Tedeschi & Moore, 2016):

  • Being part of a support group
  • Relying on family or friends
  • Absence or low levels of guilt, shame, embarrassment related to their illness
  • Being naturally optimistic
  • The ability to maintain a sense of humor
  • Being older and having more life experiences
  • Successful experiences with difficult life events in the past
  • Effective coping strategies

There are ways to access resources that closely link with these protective factors and may help patients adjust to their cancer diagnosis. Here are some of the resources that I recommend to patients:

  • Join a support group (check your hospital or Cancer Support Community www.cancersupportcommunity.org)
  • Connecting with other cancer patients in your age group (this is especially important for young adults; check out www.stupidcancer.org)
  • Take breaks from cancer by planning time to do fun activities with those close to you (take a day trip, brunch with friends, visit with family)
  • Do something that makes you laugh (e.g. watch a movie, spend time with a good friend, dance)
  • Talk to cancer patients who have been down a similar path by connecting with patients who are further along in the journey of treating your type of cancer (ask at your cancer center for peer programs or contact www.imermanangels.org)
  • Share feelings of guilt or fear with those close to you as they can help you develop a more balanced perspective and can provide encouragement
  • Let others help you. It will build a stronger connection with your support system and will help you feel supported (e.g. assist with meals, transportation, support during treatment or doctor appointments)

I will be writing a series of blog posts on the topic of cancer and trauma so look out for upcoming posts on post-traumatic growth and resilience.

References

Chan, C. M. H., Ng, C. G., Tabib, N.A., Wee, L. H., Krupat, E., Meyer, F. (2018). Course and predictors of post-traumatic stress disorder in a cohort of psychologically distressed patients with cancer: A 4-year follow-up study. Cancer, 124 (2): 406-416.

Tedeschi, R. G. & Moore, B. A. (2016). The posttraumatic growth workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc..

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