How a Cancer Diagnosis Can Cause PTSD

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Most people are familiar with the term “shell shock.”

First coined during World War I, soldiers developed this type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a reaction to the intensity of war.

Symptoms such as confusion, fatigue, loss of sight and hearing are attributed to shell shock. Soldiers were deeply affected by the symptoms, and many faced military discharge.

The American Psychiatric Association attributes the discovery of shell shock symptoms and trauma to Army psychologist Dr. Charles Myers.

Once symptoms were linked to traumatic experiences of war, doctors and psychologists used different and more effective treatments to heal the accumulated mental trauma.

There are many similarities between the trauma soldiers experience on the battlefield and the trauma cancer patients experience in their battle for survival.

A 2013 study at Columbia University revealed nearly 1 in 4 women recently diagnosed with breast cancer experienced symptoms of PTSD.

Cancer and Traumatic Experiences

The American Society of Clinical Oncology patient information website recently published an article that clarifies cancer-related triggers of trauma symptoms.

We all know facing a diagnosis or harsh cancer treatments is physically and emotionally taxing. However, patients may not relate their cancer battle to trauma.

Some of the cancer-related triggers include:

  • Initial Diagnosis: Hearing a doctor say the word “cancer” is life changing for most patients. The initial diagnosis jolts people, stirring negative emotions such as fear, worry, anxiety and dread.
  • Cancer Staging: When doctors inform patients of the advanced stage of their cancer, many patients realize that they must fight for their lives. The news may come as a sudden shock to patients and trigger unanticipated feelings of anger and disbelief.
  • Treatments: Many patients experience fearful emotions during their cancer therapy. When people think of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, they associate the treatments with pain and common side effects such as nausea and fatigue.
  • Test Results and Fear of Tumor Growth: Patients are familiar with the battery of medical tests necessary to identify and monitor cancer growth. Some tests are painful and awaiting results is nerve-wracking. Patients may worry about an uncertain future that is contingent on the results of painful testing.

A cancer battle tests a person’s strength and resolve. It is normal for patients to feel anxiety and fear related to their cancer diagnosis and treatment. When symptoms of trauma become more pervasive and don’t go away over time, clinical intervention might be necessary.

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Mental health professionals use a universal tool called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to identify clinically significant mental disturbances.

DSM-5 helps clinicians distinguish between normal responses to trauma and symptoms of PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD are considered “clinically significant” when they interfere in several areas of life, last more than a month, and are physical and emotionally debilitating. Not all people with cancer experience trauma, but identifying the symptoms is a helpful step toward recovery for traumatized patients.

Most people associate PTSD with soldiers in battle or victims of violent attacks. However, DSM-5 notes sudden and catastrophic medical incidents may be comparably traumatic.

Hearing an unexpected diagnosis of an aggressive cancer such as mesothelioma may induce symptoms of trauma.

Some of these symptoms include:

  • Intrusive memories of the traumatic event or flashbacks
  • Negative mood and changes in cognition
  • Problems with sleep and concentration
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Hypervigilance and exaggerated startle response

Experiencing some or all of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean a person has PTSD. Some people experience symptoms of trauma that never meet criteria for clinical diagnosis.

Nevertheless, it is important to talk with your health team if you experience similar symptoms. Maintaining optimal physical and mental health is imperative throughout cancer treatment.

Clinical Treatment for Cancer-Related Trauma

If a doctor determines your symptoms of trauma are clinically significant, they make a referral to a mental health professional.

Skilled clinicians use various interventions to address the causes of traumatic symptoms. Psychotherapy or mental health counseling is a standard method of treatment for PTSD.

In therapy, clinicians help patients develop the coping skills necessary to deal with the trauma they’ve experienced. Therapists also work to educate their clients about the symptomatic nature of a particular disorder.

Mental health professionals also focus on a person’s strengths. With an emphasis on positive attributes, clients develop more effective strategies to conquer anxiety, fear and trauma.

Healing from the Emotional Impact of a Diagnosis

Although a cancer patient’s experience might not warrant a clinical mental health diagnosis, dealing with a life-threatening illness is never easy.

Families dealing with cancer encounter a significant amount of stressful situations. Learning effective ways to relieve tension is a way to maintain good mental health.

Some people find solace in writing. Keeping a journal about daily life presents a useful tool for processing positive and negative elements of one’s life experience.

Many people say taking a long, hot bath is a good way to wash one’s cares away. Sneaking in a midday nap is a way to wake up feeling refreshed from the worries of the day.

Protective factors help to shield the negative impact of cancer related-trauma and stress. Understanding the treatment plan and having good relationships with doctors helps patients envision recovery.

Having a supportive system of family, friends and loved ones helps patients cope with a tough diagnosis.

Sometimes we find the best “medicine” among those we love.


Melanie is currently pursuing a Master's degree at the University of the Cumberlands. She has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Phoenix. Her father was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1992. She is dedicated to writing about her unique experience with the rare disease.

  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Arlington, Va. American Psychiatric Association, 2013.
  2. American Society of Clinical Oncology. (2016, January). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Cancer. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.net/survivorship/life-after-cancer/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-and-cancer
  3. Jones, E. (2012, June). Shell Shocked. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/06/shell-shocked.aspx
  4. Vin-Raviv, N. et. al. (2013, April 17). Racial disparities in posttraumatic stress after diagnosis of localized breast cancer: the BQUAL study. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23434900

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