The connection between PTSD and cancer

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer.

But a study recently published by the American Cancer Society indicates that about 22 percent of people with cancer had symptoms of PTSD six months after their diagnosis. Four years later, many were still dealing with PTSD.

PTSD isn’t the only mental health concern for people with cancer. Depression after a cancer diagnosis also is relatively common. That’s why it’s important to make mental health a priority when you’re undergoing treatment. One of the best ways to cope with PTSD after a cancer diagnosis is by using all the available resource, including therapy.

Learn more about patient resources and services at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

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What Is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health disorder that some people develop after a life-threatening experience or serious trauma. It’s most commonly associated with military personnel who have served in combat. However, anything from the death of a loved one to being involved in an accident or witnessing a dangerous event can cause PTSD.

Symptoms usually appear soon after a traumatic event like a cancer diagnosis — but they may not show up until months or years later. And some people continue to struggle with PTSD after they’ve beaten cancer.

Therapy can help overcome some of the common symptoms of PTSD, including:

  • Experiencing flashbacks. This includes having nightmares or memories that feel as if the cancer diagnosis or treatment is being experienced once again.
  • Avoiding people and places that are reminiscent of what occurred. This includes actively avoiding situations or people that were associated with your cancer experience. Being around them or in that environment may trigger difficult memories.
  • Having persistent negative thoughts, beliefs, and mood swings. Sometimes people with PTSD feel fear, anger, guilt and/or shame, which can change their perception of themselves and others. This can also lead to loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. People with PTSD may have a hard time trusting others, and can also feel emotionally numb and have difficulty experiencing happiness.
  • Feeling highly anxious or hyperaroused. Some people with PTSD experience heightened anxiety that can lead to feeling hyper alert, jittery, or always on the lookout for danger. This also may affect concentration and sleep and lead to reckless behaviors.

Many people with cancer may be hesitant to open up about their thoughts and feelings because they believe they need to be strong through treatment. Though positive, that thought process can prevent people from seeking help.

Cancer and PTSD: What Is the Connection?

Most people think depression after a cancer diagnosis is the main mental health obstacle. But due to the potentially traumatic nature of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, PTSD symptoms also may occur and should be addressed.

Although there’s still a lot to learn about people with PTSD and cancer, it’s possible the two have a bigger correlation than is currently known. Evidence indicates that even family caregivers, such as spouses of cancer patients, can experience PTSD as the result of their loved one’s diagnosis and treatment.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Cancer-Related PTSD

The study of PTSD and its effect on people with cancer is a fairly new area of research. Although it is less common than depression, PTSD must be addressed because it can affect the ability of patients to participate in their medical care, which can worsen their physical health.

For example, patients who experience PTSD symptoms may decide against having follow-up scans because they are too afraid to return to the cancer center. Some patients may avoid seeing their doctors for much needed medical care because they are reminded of a difficult past visit.

PTSD also can impact quality of life for patients, families, and caregivers.

The good news is that many cancer treatment centers screen for psychosocial distress, including the emotional wellbeing of the patient, to identify someone who may need help.

Early intervention can go a long way in helping to avoid some of the emotional distress that patients — even survivors  — may face.

Anyone with cancer should consider meeting with a therapist or counselor to discuss his or her mental health. When you are dealing with the burden of a physical disease, it’s important not to let your mental health suffer. UPMC has counseling resources and support groups for people with cancer.

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.