Dealing with cancer-related PTSD

We have all heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from soldiers in wars, but few are aware that PTSD can happen to anyone as a result of intense stress situations such as cancer.

Cancer is likely one of the most stressful situations a person will face in their life. Reported rates of lifetime cancer-related PTSD range from 3% to 22%.1 PTSD tends to develop and manipulate a cancer survivor’s mind over time. However, there are ways and means to prevent and cure PTSD in a clinically supported way.

Let us understand what PTSD is in little more detail. You could possibly develop PTSD if you are experiencing feelings of shock, fear, helplessness, or horror. Since this is a psychological situation, you may tend to develop PTSD or PTSD-related symptoms anytime during the process from diagnosis to treatment.2

Throughout your cancer journey – from diagnosis to post-care, watch out for symptoms of PTSD. Some of the very prominent symptoms1 could be, but are not limited to:

  • Stress-related to/during the diagnosis or while you are waiting for the results
  • Remission interrupted by acute episodes of stress
  • Perceived feeling of not being able to escape the situation and feeling of helplessness
  • Bodily signs as persistent reminders, such as pain, feeling drowsy

PTSD in cancer patients

Trauma could start to develop as soon as the individual comes to terms with the cancer detection. Published research1 suggests that past traumatic life events such as pre-cancer psychiatric disorder, history of negative life stressors, and cancer situations such as advanced stage of cancer and more than one occurrence of cancer are more likely to trigger a PTSD scenario.

Medical experts suggest that individuals experiencing these symptoms for a long time could need near-term medical attention to treat PTSD.

Early assessment helps effectively and efficiently treat PTSD. Patients could develop PTSD symptoms at any stage of their treatment process.

Doctors and therapists generally use surveys and interviews to talk to cancer survivors and assess the level of complexity of PTSD. The doctors could use varied methods for treating the situation, such as:

  • Crisis intervention method in which the psychology expert tries to solve the problem by enabling support mechanism and tools for the patient. As part of this treatment method, the symptoms are reduced, and the patient is pushed towards achieving normal levels of functioning.
  • Psychotherapy:3 These are also called ‘talk therapies’. Doctors may do the following, depending on the level of complexity in the treatment process.
    • Cognitive therapy: Helps you recognize the thinking patterns and overcome the fears.
    • Exposure therapy: This therapy helps you face the freighting situations boldly and without fear.

How to deal with PTSD as a cancer survivor

Fear of recurrence is the most common cause of anxiety in the life of a cancer survivor. Coping with this fear and other anxious thoughts could be the best possible way to lead a normal and happy life. Suggested methods in which an individual could tone their thoughts could be:

Taking care of emotional and physical wellbeing

Focusing on being healthy should be top of your to-do list. Consuming a healthy diet, planning an exercise routine, and practicing mindfulness. This will not only tame the negative thoughts but will also help you overcome the fear.

Be regular with doctor’s appointments

The fear of recurrence could also cause you to miss out on appointments. You could feel that if you go visit a doctor, there could be other complication related to the treatment and you might have to go through the ordeal again. However, it is important that you do not miss out on the appointments. Instead, leverage this review time with the doctor to discuss any fears you have and get clarity to help put your mind at rest.

Share your fears

Sharing and keeping the immediate family members or friends updated on the experiences and treatment process could help in the long run. Maintaining a journal is also an effective way to deal with and confide fears and distressing thoughts.

Find ways to deal with anxiety or stress

Everyone will develop their own method of coping with stress. You may enjoy playing a musical instrument, practicing meditation, spending time with friends, or doing sport. Finding a way to deal with the fears and practicing it regularly helps immensely.

You as a cancer survivor might tend to worry a lot about the rest of your life. However, t is very important to have a self-reminder to be positive and seek medical help as and when needed to live a balanced and happy life.

PTSD is a common phenomenon in cancer patients. It should be a conscious call to address the situation under the expert guidance of the doctors and psychologists. While physical ailments caused due to cancer can be treated, mental health needs to be given importance too. It not only gives you the strength to live longer, but also help you live your life to the fullest as a cancer surviror.


  1. French-Rosas, L. N., Moye, J., & Naik, A. D. (2011). Improving the Recognition and Treatment of Cancer-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 17(4), 270–276.
  2. Cancer-Related Post-traumatic Stress (PDQ®)–Patient Version. (2019, July 9). National Cancer Institute.
  3. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – Diagnosis and treatment – Mayo Clinic. (2018, July 6). Mayo Clinic.