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Can Cancer Spark Post-Traumatic Stress?

A cancer diagnosis can cause anxiety, grief and dread. In many ways, finding out you have cancer is like going through a traumatic or violent event.

That’s why cancer patients sometimes experience a version of post-traumatic stress disorder, which can happen when those natural emotions refuse to get better over time or continue to get worse.

Cancer-related post-traumatic stress can be brought on the sheer weight of what’s often seen as a brush with mortality. The cancer diagnosis itself can be difficult to accept. That’s often followed by tests, waiting for test results, treatments, hospital stays and the ever-present fear of the cancer’s return.

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress

One of the more distressing symptoms is a flashback. These can be random events that often have triggers. You may be walking through a perfume shop and catch a whiff of something that reminds you of one of your nurses. And just like that, you find yourself transported back to this traumatic part of your life.

Flashbacks aren’t the same vivid memories depicted in movies, but your body certainly responds with anxiety. Your heart rate may increase, and you may have difficulty catching your breath.

It’s also common to have recurring thoughts about your own mortality and the fragile nature of life. That can spawn a hyper vigilance, where you find yourself jumpy and reactionary.

Other symptoms include:

  • Nightmares
  • Avoiding places, events and people that bring back bad memories
  • Strong feelings of guilt, hopelessness or shame
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Continuous feelings of anger
  • Lost interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Self-destructive behavior (including drugs or alcohol abuse)

Risk Factors

One of the challenges faced with predicting risk is the simple fact that two people can face the same traumatic event and react very differently. One of them might recover quickly, while the other may develop PTSD . Still, research offers a better idea about which patients might be at greater risk. Among them:

  • People who have experienced traumatic events during the first 18 years of life
  • Women from minority groups
  • People with high levels of overall stress
  • People who use alcohol and drugs to cope with stress
  • Single people
  • Infants and preschoolers
  • Women diagnosed with breast cancer

Treatment Options

The treatment approach can vary based on your unique needs, strengths and support system. People are incredibly resilient and capable of learning new skills, no matter their age. You can teach someone a different way to look at something and empower them to overcome it. Common treatments, often done in combination with each other, include:

Therapy. This involves talking with a mental health professional or counselor who has experience treating PTSD. It can be done one-on-one or in group settings.

Support groups. The gatherings provide a safe place to share experiences and learn from other cancer patients. Research suggests these groups can help relieve depression and anxiety.

Medication. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can help manage symptoms.

What About Triggers?

While smell is the most common trigger, there are others. The tricky thing to understand about triggers is that you never know what might set something off. Talking about a friend who was diagnosed with cancer could do it. As could seeing someone wearing a color like that of traditional medical scrubs. Even a sound could trigger a stress episode. For instance, many cancer centers have a bell that patients ring when they finish their treatment. Particularly for patients with metastatic cancer, hearing a bell can trigger a wave of emotions.

The Second Arrow

Looking at cancer and PTSD, it can help to recall the famous Buddhist parable about the second arrow. The general gist of the parable is this: Being struck by an arrow is painful, and out of our control, while our reaction to that event is under our control and is represented by thesecond arrow. Sometimes being struck by the second arrow that emotional reaction is even more painful than the first. One of the goals in helping cancer survivors cope with that trauma is teaching them that it’s normal to have these feelings of anger, guilt and grief. There is help available if your symptoms don’t go away.

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