Many breast cancer patients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder typically brought on by a traumatic event. Notably, PTSD can happen after any life-threatening situation, and a breast cancer diagnosis or cancer recurrence certainly qualifies. PTSD can affect one’s ability to cope with life’s daily tasks and make it difficult to function.
Several years ago while hosting an exhibit table at a pre-COVID-19 era Nurse Navigator conference in Las Vegas, we were asked to explain the function of our organization, survingbreastcancer.org (SBC). Our response was that “our programming for the breast cancer community was predicated on the ongoing needs and concerns of the breast cancer patient”. The Nurse Navigator attendees would invariably respond with further territorial probing, to which we would reply:
“At SBC we realize that the oncology teams were the primary caregivers, but that once a patient enters into the realm of post-active treatment, PTSD may begin to set in. After surveying literally thousands of survivors we found that “fear of recurrence” to be an overarching theme.”
Most newly diagnosed breast cancer patients feel like their emotions are all over the place, e.g., scared, stressed, worried, angered. This is certainly understandable due to the physiological, psychological, and surgical impacts of the Dx. But what separates “normal” stress from PTSD symptoms? PTSD symptoms last longer than a month and may severely affect one’s daily life. Symptoms include:
memory loss (“Chemo Brain”)
nightmares or about the whole cancer experience
continuously focusing on the cancer experience
over the top irritability
loss of appetite
self-destructive behavior (drug or alcohol abuse)
being startled or frightened easily
PTSD symptoms may appear within 3 months of a traumatic event, last longer than a few weeks, and may severely affect daily life. But in some cases, symptoms don't appear for years after the traumatic event.
Treatment options can include medications, such as antidepressants, and therapy to help you learn ways to cope with situations that may trigger traumatic response. Above all, treatment and therapy help the patient understand that a disorder like this one develops because of extraordinary stress, not because of weakness.
The following may help if you’re coping with PTSD brought on by breast cancer:
Stick to your treatment plan
Get plenty of rest/sleep
Eat a healthy diet
Minimize caffeine and nicotine
Don’t use alcohol or drugs
Surround yourself with supportive people
Consider joining a support group like SBC's Thursday Night Thrivers
In addition, some complementary, holistic techniques have been shown to ease anxiety, stress, and fear, such as aromatherapy (my favorite is lavender), journaling, meditation, and art as healing. It also should be noted that the parents and or loved ones of patients who go through cancer treatment can also suffer from PTSD, with similar triggers and symptoms.
The key is to get treatment early. Symptoms and mental distress are often long-lasting and can affect your relationships, your job, and your overall health. At SBC we urge all to seek help before these symptoms have a chance to further disturb your life.
To make sure you get the help you need, talk to your doctor right away if you’re having PTSD symptoms.