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Cancer Patients May Experience Post-Traumatic Stress

Cancer Patients May Experience Post-Traumatic Stress

A cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship are fraught with numerous stressors and challenges. Research has been done to look at stress in cancer survivors and it’s often been found that survivors exhibit trauma-related symptoms like avoidant behaviors and intrusive thoughts.1 I can remember instructing my husband that I did not want to talk to family or friends when they called to inquire about my condition. I was angry and not ready to discuss and explain my blood cancer and its treatment.

Cancer-related Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS)

Patients’ feelings of shock, fear, and helplessness may lead to Cancer-Related Post-traumatic stress, which is like the PTSD that affects survivors of stressful events1. Certain factors that may predispose people to this include cancers that recur as in blood cancers, a high level of general stress, and the amount of social support available.3

Although I have a recurring lymphoma, I am blessed to have a very strong, loving support system of family and friends. My husband and son were ever present during my stressful journey, even despite my not so pleasant behavior. They showed positive and useful unconditional love which truly made the difference.

Triggers for cancer-related PTS

The literature has identified the following triggers for PTS: a cancer diagnosis, a cancer treatment, awaiting test results and fearing that cancer has returned.1 I experience scanxiety every April as I await my annual CT scan to determine if my sleeping cancer has awakened. My family is aware, and I believe they provide even greater support at this time.

Symptoms of cancer-related PTS are similar to other stress disorders: feeling defensive, irritable, fearful, unable to think clearly and sleeping problems. The effects of PTS can affect a person’s ability for a normal lifestyle and may affect personal relationships.

Coping with the stress and trauma of cancer

Several years ago, as a nursing educator, before I ever became a cancer survivor, I had the privilege to facilitate a cancer support group. Our members verbalized their fears and concerns, and openly expressed their inability to deal with certain issues. I was amazed at how much support the participants received from each other as they shared similar feelings and experiences. Members encouraged fellow cancer survivors to become aware of the thinking patterns that cause them distress and replace them with more useful and positive ones. It was amazing how participants helped each other and raised awareness.

The cancer experience is more than one stressful event. Survivors need long-term monitoring. Protective factors include a good social support and an open relationship with the health care provider. Patients may benefit from a focus on problem-solving, relaxation training and becoming aware of thinking patterns. Yoga has helped me relax and clear my head. Journaling has helped me focus on more positive ways of thinking. Participating in a support group may help by meeting others with similar experiences and symptoms. Hopefully, by increasing awareness and implanting coping strategies cancer survivors can better manage the stressors of cancer survivorship.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

    PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board. Cancer-Related Post-traumatic Stress (PDQ®). Available at
  1. National Cancer Institute. Cancer-Related Post-traumatic Stress (PDQ®)–Patient Version. Available at
  2. National Cancer Institute. Factors That Affect the Risk of Cancer-Related Post-traumatic Stress (PTS). Available at


  • Carole McCue author
    5 months ago

    A support group is a terrific idea.
    In the past, as an RN I started a Cancer support which was very helpful.
    It was a rewarding experience.
    Good luck🙏🏻

  • Ann Harper moderator
    5 months ago

    I would live to be part of a support group. I wonder if I could start one on my own?

  • bluchs
    9 months ago

    Carole Thank You
    Yes, We can suffer from PTS
    I know I do.
    I am not sure what my triggers are.
    I can be sleeping, driving, walking, shopping etc.
    And bam, I get teary eyed, I remember some of the painful things, I have been through.
    I actually, re live them as if it is happening again.
    Right now, my legs feel heavy and I am getting out of breath, just walking across the room.
    It feels like my hemoglobin is low?
    I am re-living getting a blood transfusion, I have already had 40, and it scars me? plus I need to have irradiated blood, so they don’t have it in the hospital, it needs to be ordered.
    Absolutely, it is happening to me right now!

  • Ann Harper moderator
    5 months ago

    I’m so sorry you have to go through this. I’ve been very lucky that so far- that hasn’t happened to me. Good luck to you. I don’t know much about PTS but I hope it eases up for you with time.

  • Yolanda Brunson-Sarrabo moderator
    8 months ago

    @bluchs This process is indeed tough to mentally wrap your head around. Sending positive energy your way.

  • Carole McCue author
    9 months ago

    I hope some of these strategies help. Sending you healing hugs🙏🏻

  • Mike Padjen
    9 months ago

    @cmccue, I’ve wondered for the past year if I was exhibiting signs of PTS, when I would get very anxious and emotional when I even drove on the roads near the cancer center at Duke. Recently some thing odd happened getting ready for my 1 year checkup. When I received my transplant, I had nightmares for about a month. They pretty much stopped until around 10 days before my 1 year appointment, then started again with a bang and we’re every night ! I went to my appointment Tuesday and have not had a nightmare since. That seems odd, but the only thing I can pin it on is mild ptsd. My meds or the time I take them have not changed at all. Go figure….

  • Ann Harper moderator
    5 months ago

    Yearly or any checkup can definitely cause anxiety. At least now your getting some relief.

  • Carole McCue author
    9 months ago

    It is very possible. Having cancer abd certainly a transplant can cause a stress response from our body. Glad you are better. Try some of the stress reducing and coping strategies. I pray that your transplant went well.
    Sending healing hugs🤗

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