Cancer Survivors Struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

A cancer diagnosis and the treatment that follows weigh heavily on many survivors, and in some instance haunt survivors years later. The stressful symptoms mimic those experienced by soldiers returning from war.

According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, four out of 10 people said they experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) more than 10 years after they had been diagnosed with cancer. Their symptoms included being hypersensitive, feeling emotionally detached or numb with friends and family, and having flashbacks and disturbing feelings about their fight against cancer and their treatment to contain it.

The Journal of Clinical Oncology study is a follow-up to an earlier study conducted by Sophia Smith from the Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina. Smith surveyed 566 patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for PTSD. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a common cancer that affects nearly 66,000 Americans each year. One in twelve patients suffered from PTSD and experienced symptoms such as avoidance and flashbacks. The latest study states that PTSD symptoms are actually growing stronger over the years in some of these patients.

Bonnie Green, a trauma expert from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., also studied PTSD in cancer survivors. She commented on the fact that 13 years after a cancer patient’s initial diagnosis, 12 percent of them did not have any more PTSD symptoms, but 37 percent of them had symptoms of PTSD that had remained the same or increased. Her concern is that cancer survivors tended to have PTSD years after their initial diagnosis and that it should not be assumed that the cancer patient will automatically heal emotionally as time goes on.

Smith is concerned about lower income patients who are fighting cancer. The survey stated that people with lower incomes are more psychologically impacted by cancer than others. She also worries that the result of PTSD in some cancer survivors is causing them to avoid follow-up care. She found that one in 10 survivors avoid thinking about cancer, while one in 20 avoid any situations that remind them of their illness.

Smith stresses that doctors must be vigilant during check-ups to see that their patients are feeling well, not only physically but emotionally. For those suffering from PTSD, Smith advises trauma counseling and talk therapy, both of which have proven effective in studies.

The battle against cancer continues for those who suffer from PTSD long after their treatments are over, but physicians, families and friends can keep a careful and caring eye on those who have survived the fight with cancer. Through regular check-ups, guidance, counseling and support, the battle against traumatic stress can be won.