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.

Unfortunately, seven years after my diagnosis as I approach that benchmark mentioned by the doctor, I still remember her words and am concerned. By the way, I immediately switched to a more positive oncologist who constantly encourages me and is not “gloom and doom.” I fight constantly with myself to keep from re-experiencing that nightmare in her office over and over again.

What does the cancer survivor do if there are symptoms of PTSD? If one is continuing to experience flashbacks and constant fear from hyper vigilance, seek a therapist who is trained in trauma. The therapy concentrates on changing the memory which is housed in the limbic (emotional) side of the brain. It takes 20 milliseconds for our fast-thinking brains to process these memories. With hard work, the memory is switched to the neocortex, decision making (logical) side of the brain. Interestingly enough, this decision making takes 500 milliseconds for the brain to process. Therefore, to switch over is truly progress!

Other treatments for PTSD are the conventional methods which include proper diet, adequate sleep, exercise and relaxation methods. I believe that one of the most effective treatments for PTSD is yoga. There is also a specific type of therapy technique called EMDR- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. This can be very successful when administered by a trained therapist. Journaling also is a huge benefit for PTSD. More on this subject can be found by researching the works of Bessel van der Kolk. This dynamo is a recognized trauma expert and has written several book and articles on the subject.

Why can’t a person just “get over trauma?” The brain is very complex and researchers are discovering that when a traumatic event occurs, there is a marked increase of the hormone cortisol in the adrenal glands. This hormone regulates many bodily functions such as metabolism, sugar levels and blood pressure. After the person experiences a traumatic event, the event is registered in the amygdale (emotional) part of the brain. The cortisol never returns to the original baseline without treatment. This means that cancer survivors are undergoing changes in their body due to cancer cells and chemo treatments, and can experience additional medical assaults to their body if traumatized.

Do not let PTSD go untreated. Monitor it carefully and seek help. I personally prefer changing my own thoughts from 104 months to live to “I am going to beat all the odds!”