Breast Cancer and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: When Cancer Haunts You After Remission

When women are diagnosed with breast cancer, they often start to hear war-zone terminology: battle, fight, warrior. But there is another battle term we should associate with cancer: PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. About 1 in 4 women diagnosed with breast cancer will also experience PTSD.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a terrifying experience. Your mind instantly wonders about mortality, the grueling treatments, and the permanent changes to your body. Women (and men) diagnosed with breast cancer may not understand the symptoms of PTSD, or they may dismiss them if they have them, assuming that their experience doesn’t truly merit a diagnosis, or that what they’re experiencing is a normal part of cancer.

Photo: AdobeStock/
Photo: AdobeStock/

But, as says, “There’s a difference between the normal stress of facing a cancer diagnosis and the inability to get on with life after the cancer is gone.” Even if symptoms are not severe enough to be diagnosed as traditional PTSD, cancer patients may deal with the less-severe but still serious PTS (cancer-related Post-Traumatic Stress).

The unique nature of cancer and its treatments make cancer patients susceptible to PTSD, and even if a patient “beats” cancer, the lingering effects of PTSD can continue to steal a person’s quality of life. Here we’ll talk about why cancer patients experience PTSD, the signs and symptoms, and ways to manage and cope with the condition.

Photo: AdobeStock/Antonioguillem
Photo: AdobeStock/Antonioguillem

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Why Cancer is associated with risk of PTSD

About 70 percent of American adults will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime, and about 20 percent of those will go on to develop PTSD. Traumatic events are often violent encounters, sexual assault, or natural disasters. But there are several aspects of cancer diagnosis and treatment that can cause serious trauma:

  • The initial diagnosis. The word “cancer” is scarier for people than many other diseases.
  • Unsure treatment outcomes. The fear of the unknown could haunt you and cause traumatic stress.
  • Worry over test results.
  • The pain and discomfort of repeated radiation or chemotherapy treatments.
  • Pain from the actual cancer.
  • Trauma of losing a breast or breasts.
  • Losing your hair and not being able to recognize yourself.
  • Photo: AdobeStock/ryanking999
    Photo: AdobeStock/ryanking999
  • Hospital stays.
  • The risks of infection and other complications that come with necessary treatments.
  • Fear of death.
  • Fear of recurrence.
  • Scary or unfamiliar terminology.
  • A poor relationship or lack of trust with your care team.
  • Intensity of treatment.

While receiving any major disease diagnosis can be terrifying, the war-related terminology, toxicity of treatments, and fear of recurrence associated with cancer increases the risk of trauma and PTSD.

Symptom Timeline

PTSD doesn’t follow a strict schedule. Symptoms can be transient or inconsistent, and they will be different for each person. In general, symptoms begin within three months of a traumatic event. A traumatic event might be an initial diagnosis, part or all of treatment, or cancer-related fear or stress. Symptoms can also surface years later. PTSD can increase risk of other mental, emotional, and physical health problems. Symptoms of PTSD do often decrease over time.

“NEXT” for signs, symptoms, and treatment of PTSD

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