Whatever You Call It, Trauma After Cancer Is Real

When I first heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, it had to do with flashbacks and nightmares afflicting veterans of wars.

I later learned that it can happen to anyone who experienced a traumatic event.

After cancer, I realized that I had PTSD. It stemmed from the shock of diagnosis. It came from the fear that gripped me during treatment and relapse when I didn’t know if I would live or die.

I’m sure I’m not alone.

Cancer-related post-traumatic stress

According to The Mayo Clinic, “Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”1

A study in the journal Cancer, published last year, showed that one in five cancer patients experienced PTSD.

“This underscores the importance of building better programs for longer-term support for cancer patients,” Dr. Fremonta Meyer, a psychiatrist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and co-author of the study, told Stat News. “Otherwise we’ll miss people who are really continuing to suffer emotionally.”2

The National Cancer Institute has a slightly different name for it – cancer-related post-traumatic stress (PTS) – and says it is similar but not as severe.

According to the NCI website, “People who have survived military combat, natural disasters, violent personal attack (such as rape), or other life-threatening stress may suffer from PTSD. The symptoms for PTS and PTSD are a lot alike, but most cancer patients are able to cope and don't develop full PTSD. The symptoms of cancer-related PTS are not as severe and don't last as long as PTSD.”3

This might be splitting hairs.

Recognizing my post-cancer PTSD

The fact is, many of us have symptoms years after diagnosis and treatment. It sounds like the good news is that we are better able to cope than those with full-blown PTSD.

As for whether it lasts as long, I have nothing to compare it to. But I know that, nine years after my fourth bone marrow transplant, I still have nightmares from time to time.

I dreamt that my doctors were going to do a major procedure on me. They would stick a needle in my arm and I would go under. I might not survive the night, but if I did, I would be much better off. They said a relative should stay with me through the night. At first I was in a nice hospital room, but then I was in a corridor, and I had no idea where they would sit. I was scared out of my mind.

The dream obviously has its roots in my stem cell transplant and the touch-and-go days afterwards.

The death of a former colleague, from a degenerative nerve disease, must have sparked it. I went to his memorial service on Sunday and had the dream on Monday. I woke up under a cloud and felt blue for most of the day.

Finding coping mechanisms

I have various coping mechanisms. One is to just accept the way you feel. It helped a little to go to a restaurant that I like and treat myself to a cup of mushroom barley soup. I read a local newspaper and found something fun to do over the weekend. (It was a craft fair.) Later, I walked the dog with a friend who also has a Labrador retriever.

By the way, if you believe you have PTSD, or PTS, and you are having trouble coping, you should probably see your doctor or a mental health professional (additional mental health resources can be found here).

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