Cancer-Related PTSD: The Trauma is Real

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so we’re turning our focus to an issue that plagues many of us who have faced breast cancer or other life-threatening experiences. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that consists of intense emotional and physical reactions following events perceived as terrifying by our body and mind. Such triggers can be brought on by conscious or subconscious memories, nightmares or other flashes of fear that endure for months, even years, and impede our sense of safety and ease in the world.

PTSD often plays a significant and particularly poignant role with cancer patients. Whether we’re facing metastatic disease, recovering from treatment or surgery or living in fear of recurrence, this heightened sense of anxiety has the capacity to dramatically diminish our quality of life. After winning her battle with breast cancer, writer Bonnie Annis wrote, “I'd find myself crying at the drop of a hat or feeling extremely anxious. Sometimes I felt depressed. It felt like my emotions were all over the place...I wondered what was happening to me.” To learn more about this quiet, potentially paralyzing side effect of breast cancer and why facing PTSD together is so crucial, read on.

Breast Cancer is a Traumatic Event

PTSD occurs when we perceive a serious threat to our lives or wellbeing. Across studies, more than half of all cancer patients meet the diagnostic stressor criteria for cancer-related PTSD. For many of us, a battle with breast cancer can leave us feeling anxious about the future, depressed about the past and consumed with ongoing side effects in the present, making it challenging to deal with normal, daily activities. Depression and anxiety are common after an emotionally trying battle with an illness, loss, or even prolonged periods of intense stress. The events of trauma unfold slowly. We experience a gamut of emotional distress, and often, there are ups and downs throughout the journey fraught with extreme moments of acute fear. What makes cancer-related PTSD so complicated, though, is that we often don’t experience a traditional post-trauma ‘endpoint’ signifying that it’s time to move on. We go through years and years of scans, follow up appointments with our oncologists and anxiety inducing tests (scanxiety). These repeated experiences prolong the sense of terror in our body, allowing PTSD to be triggered long after after we ‘think’ we’ve put our cancer journey behind us.

None of Us Should Face PTSD Alone

Vulnerability expert and researcher Brené Brown writes “You would think the universal nature of struggle would make it easier for all of us to ask for help, but in a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, there can still be so much shame around reaching out, especially if we’re not raised to understand the irreducible nature of human need.” Many of us are well-informed of the physical challenges involved in fighting a disease, such as breast cancer. We take them in stride, and openly lean on our loved ones for support. Yet when it comes to the psychological battle with PTSD, something different happens. Studies show that cancer patients experience a greater likelihood of depression, anxiety, and decreased quality of life in addition to other PTSD symptoms. While we tend to reach out for support about our physical illness, when it comes to the more internal aspects, many of us brave this invisible foe on our own.

Our Feelings Are Real. They Can Be Treated.

It’s important to note that PTSD is a medically recognized disorder. It is real. Our feelings are valid, and they can also be treated. Symptoms often include nightmares, trouble sleeping, memory and concentration issues, problems maintaining personal relationships and even getting startled easily. Managing PTSD is possible with treatment plans from medical professionals, and there are many suggestions for post-cancer PTSD to supplement these regimens. It’s recommended that we build a strong support system of people who love us and understand our condition. Start healthy habits and routines that enable us to feel better during moments of high anxiety and low depression. Yoga, meditation, journaling and other holistic wellness practices can complement our healthcare, too. The pain we experience after cancer can hit at any time. Just like Bonnie Annis discovered, self-monitoring is important, but it’s also important to reach out. Her advice is simple, “Don't let emotional side effects become debilitating and know that it's OK to seek help.”

Our journey with illness may start at diagnosis, but the emotional side of it can take months, even years, to navigate. With each passing moment, it’s possible to encounter a new activation or trigger of our pain. Moving through trauma takes time, but more importantly, it takes recognition - being consciously aware of its presence. The shock and terror we experienced (and for many, continue to experience) are difficult to forget (even if our minds block them out, our cell memory doesn’t), but with time, and hopefully good health, we can focus more on what’s before us and less on what lies in the past. Such is the art of thriving in the unknown….

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ― Rumi