Can You Get PTSD From Having Cancer?

Reviewed on 1/20/2021

It is common for patients diagnosed with cancer to feel shock, fear, helplessness, or dread, any of which could lead to cancer-related post-traumatic stress. The symptoms for cancer-related PTS and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are similar, but most cancer patients don't go on to develop full PTSD.
It is common for patients diagnosed with cancer to feel shock, fear, helplessness, or dread, any of which could lead to cancer-related post-traumatic stress. The symptoms for cancer-related PTS and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are similar, but most cancer patients don't go on to develop full PTSD.

Cancer can affect a person’s physical health as well as their mental health. A cancer diagnosis and treatment can cause post-traumatic stress (PTS), which is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it is usually not as severe and doesn't last as long as PTSD. PTSD refers to a group of symptoms that can affect some survivors of stressful events, such as those that involve the threat of death or serious injury to oneself or others. Military combat veterans, and survivors of natural disasters, violent personal attack (such as rape), or other life-threatening stressors can develop PTSD. 

It is common for patients diagnosed with cancer to feel shock, fear, helplessness, or dread, any of which could lead to cancer-related post-traumatic stress. The symptoms for cancer-related PTS and PTSD are similar, but most cancer patients don't go on to develop full PTSD.

Cancer often involves stressful events that recur or continue over time and patients may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress any time from diagnosis through completion of treatment and potential cancer recurrence. Post-traumatic stress may also occur in parents of childhood cancer survivors and family members of affected loved ones.

What Are Symptoms of Cancer-Related PTS?

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress typically start within the first 3 months after the trauma, but they may not occur for months or even years afterwards so cancer survivors and their families need long-term monitoring for PTS symptoms.

Symptoms of cancer-related post-traumatic stress (PTS) resemble symptoms of other stress-related disorders including anxiety disorders, depression, phobias, and panic disorder and may include:

  • Fear
  • Irritability
  • Defensiveness
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Problems sleeping
  • Avoiding other people
  • Loss of interest in life

Symptoms of cancer-related post-traumatic stress are often triggered by certain smells, sounds, and sights that are linked with chemotherapy or other treatments. Common triggers for cancer-related PTS include:

  • Diagnosis of a life-threatening illness
  • Receiving treatment
  • Waiting for test results
  • Learning the cancer has recurred

In some cases, the specific trauma that triggers cancer-related post-traumatic stress isn't always known because the cancer experience involves so many stressful events.

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What Are Risk Factors for Developing PTSD From Having Cancer?

Certain risk factors can increase the chances a cancer patient will develop post-traumatic stress, such as: 

  • Physical factors
    • Recurrent cancer
    • Advanced cancer 
    • Lengthy surgeries
    • A history of trauma or anxiety disorders
    • Longer treatment time (especially for childhood cancers)
  • Psychological, mental, and social factors
    • Previous trauma
    • High level of general stress
    • Genetic and biological factors (such as hormone disorders) that affect memory and learning
    • Availability of social support
    • Threat to life and body
    • Past diagnosis of PTSD or other psychological problems 
    • Using avoidance to cope with stress

What Factors May Make Patients Less Likely to Develop PTSD From Having Cancer?

Cancer patients who are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress have:

  • Good social support
  • Clear information about the stage of their cancer
  • An open relationship with healthcare providers

How Is Cancer-Related PTS Treated?

Treatments for cancer-related PTS may be the same as treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as: 

  • Crisis intervention techniques that focus on problem-solving, learning coping skills, and providing a supportive setting for the patient
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches patients to change behaviors by changing thinking patterns
    • Understanding symptoms
    • Learning ways to cope and to manage stress (such as relaxation training)
    • Awareness of thinking patterns that cause distress to replace them with more balanced and useful ways of thinking
    • Becoming less sensitive to upsetting triggers
    • Support groups 
  • Emotional support
    • Meet others with similar experiences and symptoms
    • Learn coping and management skills
  • Medications

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Reviewed on 1/20/2021
References
https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/survivorship/new-normal/ptsd-pdq