A woman's face is obscured as the silhouette of her body begins to shatter into pieces.

Medical PTSD In People With Cancer

For many people, cancer is the worst fear of all. Often, just the word cancer leads people to imagine hair loss, chemotherapy, nausea, and other physical symptoms. However, the physical symptoms of cancer are not the only thing that can take a toll on a person living with the condition.

Emotional distress

Around 40 percent of people with cancer feel significant social and emotional distress during their treatment, and about 33 percent of them experience such distress that they require help from a professional.1

Cancer is often seen as life-threatening and catastrophic, and some people find themselves unable to recover from the trauma of a cancer diagnosis. Medical post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs in many people who are being treated for cancer or who have completed treatment. PTSD affects their emotional and physical well-being not just during treatment but afterward, too. A person with PTSD can feel anxious, fearful, irritable, hyper-vigilant, and emotionally numb.1

PTSD symptoms may last for years after a cancer diagnosis

The symptoms of cancer-related PTSD can last for years after cancer and the cancer treatment-related symptoms have subsided. One 2018 study found that more than 33 percent of cancer patients diagnosed with PTSD 6 months after being diagnosed with cancer had developed chronic PTSD by the 4-year mark.1

Even years after treatment, people who have had cancer often experience uncertainty that it will come back and worry over the future. They also may feel a loss of independence, a changed role within their family, and a reduced ability to carry out day-to-day activities.2

Feelings of fear and sadness are common

High levels of anxiety and sadness are often thought of as “normal” reactions when someone finds out they have cancer. These feelings persist during cancer treatment, too. Well-meaning loved ones may tell the patient they should “think positively” and “fight the cancer.” Many cancer patients can feel that if they show fear or sadness, they are being “weak.”1

Processing complex emotions

Some people living with cancer may also think that their negative emotions can have a harmful effect on their immune system. However, it is common to feel sad and fearful during what is an extremely stressful period. While it can be difficult to process these complex emotions, doing so can make a person stronger emotionally in the long run. Not processing these emotions can put a person at an increased risk of depression and sleep difficulties.1

Signs of post-traumatic stress in people with cancer

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS) in someone who has had cancer may include:3

  • Problems sleeping
  • A loss of interest in life
  • Feeling fearful, irritable, or defensive
  • Avoiding other people
  • Not being able to think clearly

The impact of PTSD in people with cancer

PTSD in people who have had cancer often goes undiagnosed and thus untreated. How cancer-related PTSD affects the treatment outcome in cancer patients is not known. However, research shows that one possible outcome of PTSD may be that the person with cancer is less likely to stick to their treatment plan. They may also be less willing to follow a healthy lifestyle.1

Medical PTSD can have serious and long-lasting effects. A person’s personal relationships can be affected, and they may feel unable to have a normal lifestyle. Since avoiding people and places linked with cancer, such as doctors’ offices and support groups, is all part of PTSD, the person may not get professional care to help them feel better.3

Getting help for PTSD

Counseling may help a person who has PTSD after a cancer diagnosis. A counselor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or another form of therapy. The goal of therapy is to help the person rediscover a healthy relationship with their body. A counselor may have the person retell the story of their traumatic experiences and help them reconnect with their body through yoga and mindfulness-based intervention.

Support groups

Helping the person with PTSD set a goal that allows them to move beyond their traumatic experiences can be an important step. Helping the person explore how the trauma of having cancer has affected so many areas of their lives can also be helpful. Support groups can also benefit people with cancer who have PTSD symptoms. These groups can help them get emotional support, meet other people with similar experiences and symptoms, and learn coping skills.2,3

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.