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Cancer related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

“A cancer diagnosis is a challenge for the mind, body, heart and spirit. It is by no means just a physical challenge, although all too often it is treated as such.” These are the words of Sophie Sabbage. If you haven’t read her books, you should.

Having an abrupt introduction to your mortality is life changing. It creates pandemonium, your life is forever changed and for some people this can result in PTSD and yes this is the same PTSD as that of soldiers,  victims of serious crimes and others who have suffered significant trauma. Recognising PTSD in cancer is fairly new and might not be easily recognisable to your health care practitioners. I have heard of Doctors saying, well of course you are anxious, you have had a diagnosis of cancer. PTSD is more than that and because it is not a single event, but rather multiple ongoing events such as scans, operations, chemotherapy, anniversaries…. The stress can be ongoing.

I am not saying that everyone who has a cancer diagnosis will experience PTSD. Neither does PTSD have a direct correlation to the type and stage of cancer. Everyone responds differently to trauma. Research shows that women who have had previous traumas in their lives are also more likely to experience PTSD. Trauma is trauma, it is not a competition. I hear too often people being dismissive of their own trauma, saying but others have been through so much more than me. This is your trauma and there are no comparisons with others with regard to your own personal experience.

If you are wondering what PTSD symptoms might look like, this is a short list  (by no means an exhaustive one):

  • Nightmares or flashbacks about the cancer experience
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Avoiding people, places, and events that remind you of the experience
  • Finding no joy in activities you used to enjoy
  • Continuously focusing on the cancer experience
  • Sadness or depression
  • Intense feelings of fear
  • Extreme irritableness
  • Being overly excitable
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Shame or guilty feelings
  • Bouts of crying
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Self-destructive behaviour (alcohol for example)
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Trouble maintaining personal relationships

PTSD for some people might not be immediate and could even occur many months or years after the initial event. The cancer might go away, but knowing that you had cancer doesn’t.  Investing in getting physical support when you receive a diagnosis is normal,  so too should investing in your mental and emotional wellbeing. Doctors don’t prescribe a pill to take the fear away.

Healing the body, requires healing the mind. There are no rules of how to deal with a diagnosis of cancer. No two cancer experiences are the same. When you are newly diagnosed, everyone around you is freaked out, not just you. Your relationships and the dynamics with your friends and family can change. The first step is acknowledging these feelings, often fears need to be heard before they can be soothed.

So what can you do to begin helping yourself right now? Start by giving yourself time to process the diagnosis, which can often feel like a death and a loss of a loved one. Get sad, get mad, feel desperate, just feel and don’t bottle it up.  This is an opportunity for you to redefine your relationship with grief. Grieve if you need to grieve, stay in your pyjamas if you need too, but then you need to pick yourself up because you are in this for the long haul. 

What makes you happy? If you don’t know, there is no better time for some soul searching, wherever or whatever it is, make time for the things that make you happy. Listen to your body, your inner mother knows what’s best for you, when you need a hug or who you should (or should not!) be hanging out with, when you need a nurturing meal or just some time to yourself. Writing down your thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams can often be helpful and therapeutic.

Family and friends can be an amazing support, but be mindful,  they have their own needs too and might not always be able to offer you the support you need. Countless times my clients have told me that they cannot talk freely to their families about their really deep fears, the ones they are too afraid to say out aloud, because they know how anxious and worried it would make their loved ones.

Get support, there are so many great services out there that can help. Take advantage of them! Surround yourself with support, from your family and friends, but also from professionals  or cancer support groups – anywhere that you find helpful and that allows you to share your feelings.

If you feel that you need some support  there are some excellent services out there. Most of the cancer charities in the UK offer some level of psychological support. Many of which are free. A few examples are:  https://www.maggies.org,,, If you work with a psychologist, psychiatrist or other therapist, find the right fit for you. Sometimes it takes a few attempts, I recommend trying to find someone who works specifically with people diagnosed with cancer.

Once you go head to head with cancer there is absolutely nothing in this world you cannot do, so reach out and pick some winners to support you.