Mental Health Matters: PTSD in Cancer Patients and Survivors

The American Psychiatric Association defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.”

PTSD is most often associated with the following:

  • War or combat
  • Sexual and physical attacks
  • Serious accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Other violent personal assaults

However, adding to this list of PTSD-causing traumatic encounters is one that does not receive enough attention: suffering from and surviving cancer. Yes, cancer and its life-threatening consequences can take a serious toll on the mind and body. In fact, a study revealed that 1 in 5 people with cancer had PTSD following their diagnosis.

How Cancer Causes PTSD

If you take a closer look at the mentioned traumatic events above, you might notice a significant similarity between all of them: Not only are those circumstances scarring and uncomfortable, but they can also lead to death. Cancer is no exception.

The other aspects of cancer that might trigger PTSD include:

  • The diagnosis. Common feelings during this life-altering experience may include anxiety, depression, and anguish.


  • Tests and treatments. Generalized pain, including lingering headaches, chronic muscle pain, and other aches, is common after high-dose chemotherapy. Furthermore, some treatments can be more distressing than others. These include mastectomy (surgical removal of the breast) for breast cancer, and complete penectomy (surgical removal of the penis) for penile cancer.


  • Cancer recurrence or fear of its return. Cancer that comes back or the general fear of it returning increases stress symptoms in patients.

Symptoms of PTSD in Cancer Patients and Survivors

It is understandable for a cancer patient or survivor to have deep-rooted feelings of anxiety, such as fear, worry, and sadness. After all, they are going through or have gone through so much to fight for their life. However, if these feelings persist, worsen, or begin affecting daily life, they could be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in cancer patients include:

  • Constant nightmares and flashbacks.
  • Strong feelings of despair, shame, guilt, or hopelessness.
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating.
  • Strong avoidance of places, people, events, or things that bring back bad memories.
  • Incessant feelings of fear, anger, or resentment.
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Frightening, uncomfortable, or unwanted thoughts.
  • Loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable.
  • Emotional detachment or difficulty feeling emotions.

Signs of PTSD differ for each individual, and they can come and go. The symptoms, in most cases, develop within three months of a traumatic event. Still, PTSD can likewise occur several months or years following a scarring event. If you experience any of these symptoms and they are impacting your quality of life, do not hesitate to speak with a psychiatrist.

Why Treatment is Necessary for Cancer Patients With PTSD

People with cancer, including survivors, who have PTSD need treatment because the longer they endure it, the more hopeless they may become. As a result, they may feel discouraged to get the tests, treatments, and follow-up care they need. PTSD can also increase the risk of developing other mental, social, and physical problems. These include depression, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, broken relationships, and loss of employment.

Risk Factors for PTSD

Certain factors may make an individual more susceptible to developing PTSD, including being diagnosed with a malignant disease at a young age. One study found that young adult survivors of childhood cancers are four times more likely to suffer from PTSD

The disorder also seems to be more common among:

  • Men, women, and children who have had post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health conditions before receiving a cancer diagnosis.
  • People with high levels of stress.
  • Single men and women.
  • Women from minority groups.
  • People with less formal education.
  • People who use avoidance tactics to cope with stress, such as drugs or alcohol.
  • Individuals with low or no income.

In hindsight, it is crucial to know that cancer patients and survivors are less prone to having PTSD if they:

  • Have good relationships with their doctors and caregivers.
  • Receive strong support from their friends and family members.
  • Are given accurate information about the stage of their cancer and the treatment options available to them. In many cases, being told that “the only way to treat cancer is through conventional methods” can affect the mental and emotional health of patients. The truth is, there are other less harmful options and they have the right to know about them. If you or your loved one is looking for alternative cancer treatments that work, then choose New Hope Unlimited. Contact us now to schedule a consultation.

Treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The good news is that PTSD is treatable. Treatment depends on a patient’s specific symptoms and situation.

A person with PTSD may receive a combination of these treatments:

  • Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy entails speaking with a mental health professional, like a counselor, who has years of experience treating PTSD. Many counselors specialize in helping men, women, and children who have or have had cancer. Depending on the patient’s preferences, therapy can be a 1-on-1 session or in a group setting.
  • Medication. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs may help manage PTSD symptoms, such as anxiety, sadness, and frustration. Combining medication and psychotherapy is common among many patients.
  • Support groups. Support groups can play a significant role in a person’s ability to cope with the emotional aspects of cancer. These groups provide a “safe haven” where people experiencing the same problems share experiences, as well as learn from others facing similar situations.

Where to Find Support for PTSD

Seeking help is a brave step toward managing this serious psychiatric disorder. Talk with your healthcare team if you need assistance finding resources for PTSD. Your hospital’s discharge department or social work may also help connect you with trusted support groups in your local community.

If you need further assistance, contact the American Psychosocial Oncology Society’s helpline by dialing 866-276-7443.

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