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Cancer Patients and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The emotional shock of having a life-threatening disease puts some at risk


National Institutes of Health

Based on content from the NIH publication, “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Some survivors of cancer experience trauma -related symptoms similar to symptoms experienced by people who have survived highly stressful situations, such as military combat, natural disasters, violent personal attack (such as rape), or other life-threatening events.

This group of symptoms is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and includes avoiding situations related to the trauma, continuously thinking of the trauma, and being overexcited.

People with histories of cancer are considered to be at risk for PTSD.

The physical and mental shock of having a life-threatening disease, of receiving treatment for cancer, and living with repeated threats to one's body and life are traumatic experiences for many cancer patients.

Diagnosis and symptoms

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is defined as the development of certain symptoms following a mentally stressful event that involved actual death or the threat of death, serious injury, or a threat to oneself or others. For the person who has experienced a diagnosis of cancer, the specific trauma that triggers PTSD is unclear. It may be the actual diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, aspects of the treatment process, test results, information given about recurrence, or some other aspect of the cancer experience.

Learning that one's child has cancer is traumatic for many parents. Because the cancer experience involves so many upsetting events, it is much more difficult to single out one event as a cause of stress than it is for other traumas, such as natural disasters or rape. The traumatic event may cause responses of extreme fear, helplessness, or horror and may trigger PTSD symptoms.

PTSD in cancer survivors may be expressed in these specific behaviors:

  •     Reliving the cancer experience in nightmares or flashbacks and by continuously thinking about it.
  •     Avoiding places, events, and people connected to the cancer experience.
  •     Being continuously overexcited, fearful, irritable, and unable to sleep.

To be diagnosed as PTSD, these symptoms must last for at least one month and cause significant problems in the patient's personal relationships, employment, or other important areas of daily life. Patients who have these symptoms for less than one month often develop PTSD later.

Assessment

It is important that cancer patients undergo a careful assessment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so that early symptoms may be identified and treated. The timing of this assessment will vary with the individual patient. Cancer is an experience of repeated traumas and undetermined length. The patient may experience stress symptoms anytime from diagnosis through completion of treatment and cancer recurrence.

In patients who have a history of victimization (such as Holocaust survivors) and who have PTSD or its symptoms from these experiences, symptoms can be started again by certain triggers experienced during their cancer treatment (for example, clinical procedures such as being inside MRI or CT scanners). While these patients may have problems adjusting to cancer and cancer treatment, their PTSD symptoms may vary, depending on other factors. The symptoms may become more or less prevalent during and after the cancer treatment.

Symptoms of PTSD usually begin within the first 3 months after the trauma, but sometimes they do not appear for months or even years afterwards. Therefore, cancer survivors and their families should be involved in long-term monitoring.

Some people who have experienced an upsetting event may show early symptoms without meeting the full diagnosis of PTSD. However, these early symptoms predict that PTSD may develop later. Early symptoms also indicate the need for repeated and long-term follow-up of cancer survivors and their families.
Diagnosing PTSD can be difficult since many of the symptoms are similar to other psychiatric problems. For example, irritability, poor concentration, increased defensiveness, excessive fear, and disturbed sleep are symptoms of both PTSD and anxiety disorder.

Other symptoms are common to PTSD, phobias, and panic disorder. Some symptoms, such as loss of interest, a sense of having no future, avoidance of other people, and sleep problems may indicate the patient has PTSD or depression. Even without PTSD or other problems, normal reactions to the cancer diagnosis and treatment of a life-threatening disease can include interfering thoughts, separating from people and the world, sleep problems, and over-excitability.

Questionnaires and interviews are used by health care providers to assess if the patient has symptoms of stress and to determine the diagnosis.

Other problems may also exist in addition to PTSD. These problems can include substance abuse, emotional problems, and other anxiety disorders, including major depression, alcohol dependence, drug dependence, social fears, and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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