Blood Cancer Related Post-Traumatic Stress

Patients with a cancer diagnosis may experience feelings of fear, helplessness, and shock. I can remember all of these emotions when first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A range of reactions to this cancer diagnosis may include being distracted, trouble sleeping and repeated frightening thoughts. Cancer-related post-traumatic stress (PTS) is a lot like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but not as severe. PTSD may occur in people who have survived natural disasters, military combat, or violent personal attacks.

What causes post-traumatic stress in blood cancer patients?

Certain factors may predispose a patient to develop post-traumatic stress. Cancer that recurs or comes back has shown to increase stress symptoms. My follicular lymphoma is in remission, but I find it quite stressful that it can recur at any time. I experience scanxiety prior to my annual CAT scan.

Patients with a history of anxiety disorders are also more prone to experience PTSD. High levels of general stress limited available social support and the use of avoidance as a coping mechanism have been reported as risk factors for PTSD.

Strategies for coping with post-traumatic stress

The following strategies have been reported to protect the cancer patient from developing post-traumatic stress:

Strong social support

Patients with family and friends who can provide emotional support, companionship, and assist in other ways during this troubling time, have been shown to be extremely helpful in dealing with a cancer diagnosis. I was quite fortunate to have a strong circle of family, friends, and colleagues who listened to my concerns, provided emotional support and other tasks as needed. My husband accompanied me to all oncology appointments and stayed by my side during treatments. My son’s daily visits lifted my spirits and kept me in a positive mood.

Understandable information about cancer and treatment

Patients need to understand the stage of their cancer and treatment options. This information must be clearly presented in a non-threatening manner. My oncologist explained the factors associated with my lymphoma, recent research findings, treatment options, and possible side effects. A recommended second opinion concurred with the proposed treatment.

An open relationship with the healthcare provider

The patient must feel comfortable asking questions and informing the healthcare provider of any concerns or areas of confusion. As an RN, who initiated a cancer support group for patients, this was identified as an issue for some patients who were reluctant to ask questions of their healthcare practitioner.

More on this topic

Cancer survivors should be monitored throughout their diagnosis, treatment, and long-term care as symptoms may occur at any time. Triggers may include being diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer, during treatment, awaiting results, or learning that the blood cancer has recurred. Symptoms that may be seen include sleeping problems, feeling irritable or fearful, or loss of interest in life.

Cancer survivors should be encouraged to discuss these feelings and behaviors with their healthcare team.

Recongizing the symptoms

Techniques such as relaxation training, teaching coping skills, and providing a supportive setting for the cancer survivor have been useful. Patients may be encouraged to understand their symptoms, become aware of the thinking patterns that cause the distress, and try to replace them with more positive ways of thinking.

My physician has recognized my anxiety and negative thinking as I await the results of my annual CAT scan. He graciously has given me his cell phone number so that I can text him when the CAT scan has been done. In a timely manner, he will review the CAT films with the radiologist and then call me with the results. This intervention has had a positive effect in reducing my anxiety and stress.

I encourage my fellow cancer survivors to recognize any of the above thoughts or behaviors and seek helpful strategies to promote emotional health.

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