PTSD and Mesothelioma Cancer: The Forgotten Diagnosis

Tamron Little

Just by looking at me you would never know that I am a 13-year-and-counting peritoneal mesothelioma survivor. In fact, I have been told that I hide my pain and worries well.

At first it may seem like this is a great superpower to have because you can still go about your daily activities, converse with people, and they will never know what’s really going on in your head.

But this thing that I thought was one of my many strengths turned out to be a weakness I just recently came to terms with.

Let’s dive deep for a moment and break it down. When you hide your every worry, pain or concern from others, in a sense you don’t want them to know.

But what if just expressing your feelings could be your actual deliverance from these things? What if you are withholding your own help because you choose to keep your thoughts to yourself?

I know I am asking a lot of thought-provoking questions, but they are great questions to ask yourself daily.

PTSD and Cancer: What’s the Correlation?

As mesothelioma cancer survivors, we have been through our fair share of trauma. Just the mere fact that a doctor says you have cancer is an experience like no other.

I know for some it’s like a bomb has been dropped right into their lives. It’s like you just go numb all over your body. You don’t know what to think, say or do and want to believe that you are just dreaming. But for us survivors it was our reality.

The diagnosis is trauma, and we all can agree that trauma causes stress, worry and fear. This is where PTSD comes into play, which can occur during or after treatment.

An article by Gateway Center for Cancer Research states that about one-fifth of cancer survivors have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. It recognized that although PTSD is most often associated with veterans, “there is growing recognition that battling a life-threatening illness like cancer can also precipitate the disorder.”

The article cited a study by researchers at the National University of Malaysia that suggested approximately 22% of cancer survivors will be affected by PTSD following a diagnosis.

“From diagnosis to treatment and survivorship, each step of living with cancer carries not only physical but emotional burdens, the latter of which can create extreme stress and trauma,” the article said.

This correlation between PTSD and cancer isn’t something that’s normally talked about, especially during your doctor visits, treatments and cancer journey — at least it wasn’t for me.

Everyone was so determined to get rid of the cancer that the topic of mental health and mesothelioma never came up.

How I Found Out I Had PTSD

Although I have been free of cancer for 13 years, I just found out I had PTSD. I had been living with this for 13 years, not knowing what it was. Let that sink in for a moment.

I know you are curious to know how I found out. Well, for years I found myself in these cycles of having onset anxiety and panic attacks. They would happen while I was driving, and let me say, this is so scary I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

When it happened I’d go straight to the doctor and they’d do a battery of tests. I have had my fair share of echocardiograms, heart monitors, X-rays and lung function tests. I was eventually sent to a specialist and placed on medication for anxiety.

This happened several times over the course of many years, until recently. The common denominator with these attacks was that the doctors would ask me what I was worried about, and I really couldn’t put my finger on any one specific thing.

It was mind-blowing to hear the doctor say there is nothing wrong with your heart, lungs etc., you just have anxiety. What are you worried about? Are there a lot of heavy things on your mind? And you feel as if life is good.

Recently I had been in the anxiety cycle again and went to a new doctor who was amazed to see how well I was doing as a cancer survivor. She sat me down and told me all my tests were normal and I was going to be OK.

She then looked me straight in the eye and said, “Tamron, you have had so much trauma over the years with your cancer diagnosis, and now being a survivor. You have PTSD.”

I just looked at her with a blank stare like, well, I haven’t been to war or anything. But actually, I have.

When you have cancer your whole body is at war with itself and your mind is trying to combat all the thoughts and take in all the information about treatment, appointments and life in general.

Your mind, body and soul are put under so much stress that when it’s over you try to resume the regularly scheduled program instead of processing what just happened.

And that’s exactly what happened to me. I didn’t really process everything while I was going through it or even right after. I was just ready to get the surgery over with, the treatment done and be free of cancer.

Your worry and fear must go somewhere, right? How about your subconscious, and when something triggers it, BOOM! You’re having anxiety and panic attacks, thinking you’re going to die.

The thing with PTSD is that it can fly under the radar and not be diagnosed in so many people. Which leads me to believe there are so many cancer survivors who have PTSD and don’t know it and may be suffering in silence. But you don’t have to, and you don’t have to wait as long as I did for help.

What to Look for with PTSD

It is normal for someone with cancer or a cancer survivor to experience feelings of anxiety, worry, fear and dread. But if these feelings linger over time and continue to get worse, or affect daily life, they could be signs of PTSD.

Common PTSD symptoms include:

  • Feeling defensive, irritable or fearful
  • Being unable to think clearly
  • Having sleep problems
  • Avoiding other people
  • Loss of interest in life
  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Frightening or unwanted thoughts

There Is Help for Cancer Survivors

If you are reading this and you’re like, wow, I have been feeling the same way, don’t worry. There is help for you.

There are several mesothelioma support groups out there that offer a place to share your concerns with others just like you.

Know that you no longer have to hide your fears, worries or concerns. Know that as a cancer survivor it’s quite normal to be fearful and have bouts of anxiety. But if these feelings get worse and you see it’s affecting your daily life, seek help from your primary care physician or a mental health professional.

Be assured there are effective treatments available for you to get the help you need. Be encouraged!

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Tamron Little

Mesothelioma Survivor and Writer

Tamron Little was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2007 when she was just 21 years of age. After more than a decade of surviving with mesothelioma, Little is sharing her experiences to support people recently diagnosed with this rare, asbestos-related cancer.

1 Cited Article Sources

The sources on all content featured in The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com include medical and scientific studies, peer-reviewed studies and other research documents from reputable organizations.

  1. Gateway for Cancer Research. (2018, January 4). 1 in 5 Cancer Survivors Live With Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Retrieved from: https://www.gatewaycr.org/gateway-blog/posts/2018/january/1-in-5-cancer-survivors-live-with-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/

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