Coping with the Trauma of Cancer


If it’s true that cancer can pull the rug out from underneath the most sane and rational among us, why is not also true that we respond with the psychological equivalent of CPR, or, at the very least, an emotional Heimlich maneuver?

“It feels almost like PTSD.”

This was not the first time I’ve heard a cancer survivor describe the experience this way, but it struck a deeper chord this time. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the traumatic impact of living with a cancer diagnosis and the stresses and strains of its treatment on one’s mental health.

One of the reasons I’ve been mulling over the relationship between cancer and PTSD is that I’ve recently been certified in the trauma response known as critical incident stress management, or CISM for short. Briefly put, those of us trained under the auspices of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) serve as first responders providing psychological first aid to those exposed to a traumatic event. The other reason is my personal experience going through cancer treatment as a licensed therapist made me disappointed by the lack of awareness about its impact on my emotional wellbeing.

Through contact with other survivors and some quick online research, I learned that I was not alone in wondering about the lack of interest in the stress I was experiencing. According to the book, Cancer Care for the Whole Patient: Meeting Psychosocial Health Needs, “...the remarkable advances in biomedical care for cancer have not been matched by achievements in providing high-quality care for the psychological and social effects of cancer. Numerous cancer survivors and their caregivers report that cancer care providers did not understand their psychosocial needs, failed to recognize and adequately address depression and other symptoms of stress, were unaware of or did not refer them to available resources, and generally did not consider psychosocial support to be an integral part of quality cancer care.”

According to the ICISF, critical incidents that can lead to acute stress or a post-traumatic stress disorder are defined as, “unusually challenging events that have the potential to create significant distress and can overwhelm one’s usual coping mechanisms.” Can a survivor get an “amen!?” While normally thought of in terms of natural disasters like hurricanes and floods, or the man-made variety like mass shootings and terrorist attacks, it is by no means a psychological stretch to see how a cancer diagnosis fits the bill of a critical incident. It’s not uncommon to hear a survivor refer to receiving the diagnosis as his or her personal 9/11 or tsunami.

If it’s true that cancer can pull the rug out from underneath the most sane and rational among us, why is it not also true that we respond with the psychological equivalent of CPR, or, at the very least, an emotional Heimlich maneuver? If, as the American Cancer Society projects, there will be more than 20 million cancer survivors by 2026, there are going to be a lot of folks living in a state of acute or post-traumatic stress. We need only consider the vast number of veterans who are leaving wars zones in the Middle East with the ravages of PTSD to appreciate the importance of staying ahead of this curve to honor those who will join battle against cancer.

Perhaps, what we need, in addition to the Vice President’s “Moonshot” to cure cancer, is an equally down-to-earth response to address the mental health of those still waiting for the cure. I can’t be the only one to see the irony in attempts to save the body from being taken over by rogue cells only to have one’s emotional and mental life cause such suffering so as to give rise to the lament of, “Is this what I survived cancer for?”

The great news is that we have proof that early intervention with trauma not only helps to restore previous levels of functioning and improve chances for recovery, but it also aids in what is known as post traumatic growth (PTG). Coined by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in 1995, PTG is, “positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.” PTG moves us out illness and into wellness as it becomes the blessing within the curse.

Imagine a time when, upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, a person is given access to a trained professional whose primary role is to provide the necessary mechanisms for improving resistance, resilience and recovery. Put in simpler terms—how great would it be to have someone teach cancer patients the skills that are essential to no longer feeling like a cancer patient?

Until the day when we have, at the ready, trained professionals to provide psychological assistance to anyone who receives a cancer diagnosis, here are some tips for developing an at-home psychological first aid kit.

1. Keep something comforting close by. From pets to cherished photographs, worry beads to religious images, surround yourself with whatever helps provides a sense certainty and stability.

2. Have emotional Band-Aids handy. Personally, I found that music, soothing scents and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream were the mental equivalent of an Ace Bandage.

3. Consider a pain reliever. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can address the mental pain caused by stress, anxiety and/or depression that can inhibit healing and recovery. While I hear from many survivors that the last thing they want is to take another medication, why would we avoid treating the psychological side effects of cancer with medicine any more than the nausea?

4. Heal old wounds. If there are lingering issues from your past that negatively impact how you experience your present moment, consider seeking professional help. There is no need to add to the cancer burden by still lugging around old baggage.

5. Educate yourself. Take a break from learning more about your cancer and seek out information on how others cope with adversity. Become a scholar in resiliency or head directly into the field of trauma recovery.

Research on the use of psychological first aid has shown that it is often best administered by peers. Combine this with the understanding that helping others has a profound impact on one’s own wellbeing, and the silver lining in the dark cloud of cancer is that the war against it is creating an army of first responders who know first-hand how to help heal cancer-induced trauma.

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Dr. Kelly Stratton
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