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Can a Cancer Diagnosis Cause PTSD?

The diagnosis of a life-changing event can cause trauma. Here are some guidelines to help.
“Well – the average length of time for people to live with this type of myelodysplastic syndrome is 104 months.”

I stared at the oncologist numbly and felt the room swim. I shut down completely while she droned on about treatments. I thought, "My wonderful and happy life is changed forever.”

Once a person is given the diagnosis of cancer and life-changing news, there is often a danger of developing PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. What do I mean by that? Isn’t that for people like soldiers who have been in serious combat?

The diagnosis originated with soldiers returning from wars, but now mental health professionals have discovered trauma can occur after any traumatic event ranging from a car accident, to rape, to the diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease. 

I know because it happened to me. There are three stages of PTSD. These include avoidance, hyper vigilance and re-experiencing the event.

Immediately after my diagnosis, I didn’t answer the phone or want to talk to anyone. I went to bed with the covers over my head. I live alone which makes it easier to avoid everyone. Fortunately, family and friends persisted in contacting me and didn’t allow me to continue this behavior.

Hyper vigilance is common with cancer survivors. Ironically, this is often what saves us, just like soldiers who remain vigilant in case the enemy is approaching. We may have discovered the lump, the change in a mole, or in my case the fatigue and anemia. But now every ache, every attack of diarrhea, every change in our body makes us worry that the cancer is worse. It is a constant battle for us to find a balance between overreacting and letting the doctors know if something is really wrong.

The tricky part about this is the worrying we do causes more physical problems due to stress such as ulcers, stomach problems, headaches and other reactions. 

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the Anal cancer CURE discussion group.
Jane has earned three advanced degrees and had several fulfilling careers as a librarian, rehabilitation counselor and college teacher. Presently she does freelance writing. Her articles include the subjects of hearing loss and deafness, service dogs and struggling with cancer. She has been a cancer survivor since 2010.

She has myelodysplastic syndrome, which is rare, and would love to communicate with others who have MDS.
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