Cancer & Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

By Administrator December 1, 2021

When we think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), our minds often drift to war zones or natural disasters. Yet, there’s another battlefront where PTSD manifests, one that might be unexpected: a cancer diagnosis.

We all know that a cancer diagnosis can have a profound impact on a patient’s mental and emotional well-being. The shock of uncertainty around treatments, and the fear of recurrence can all contribute to lifelong consequences beyond the disease itself.

Recent studies have shed light on the psychological impact of receiving a cancer diagnosis. Research reveals that nearly 40% of cancer patients experience significant emotional and social distress during their treatment. But what we call distress isn’t merely a fleeting emotion. For some, it solidifies into PTSD, a long-term response to the trauma of facing a life-threatening illness and the rigors of its treatment.

How Cancer Diagnosis Can Lead to PTSD?

It’s unknown exactly how many cancer survivors are living with PTSD, but according to a study by researchers at the National University of Malaysia, about one-fifth — 21.7 percent — of survivors may suffer from PTSD at six months following their diagnosis.

We know the shadow of cancer extends beyond the physical challenges, often casting its influence on the mind and spirit, leading some to struggle with the profound impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Among the many factors we can see in patients with PTSD, here are the ones that resonate the most:

Physical Factors

Certain types of cancers, due to their aggressive nature or the complexity of treatment, can inherently carry a heavier emotional burden. For instance, the recurrence of cancer can feel like an unending battle, amplifying the trauma each time the disease re-emerges.

Furthermore, the challenges of treatments, such as surgery scars or changes in body image, can serve as constant reminders of the ordeal, potentially triggering PTSD symptoms. The study mentioned above discusses the fact that the physical manifestations of cancer and its treatment can play a significant role in the onset of PTSD. The intertwining of physical and emotional pain emphasizes the need for a comprehensive approach to care, addressing not just the body but also the mind.

Psychological Factors

The mind, in its attempt to process the enormity of the situation, can sometimes become a maze of emotions, fears, and anxieties. It’s essential to recognize that every individual’s psychological response to cancer is unique, shaped by their personal history, experiences, and circumstances to understand the psychological factors that might trigger PTSD.

Research suggests that PTSD in cancer patients might often be growing in the shadows, being underdiagnosed and undertreated. This is a serious concern, as the emotional ramifications of cancer can be as debilitating as its physical symptoms, often affecting the treatment.

One of the profound psychological challenges faced by many is the onslaught of intrusive thoughts. These are uninvited, often distressing memories or images that can suddenly flood one’s mind, making it difficult to focus on the present and to continue with their life. Such intrusive thoughts can harm an individual’s ability to process and come to terms with the unsettling experience of a cancer diagnosis.

Risk Psychological Factors for Developing PTSD Post-Cancer Diagnosis

On the other hand, studies suggest there are common risk factors that might impact patients’ probabilities of developing PTSD along with many more mental health issues, including:

  • A prior history of PTSD or another mental health condition.
  • Grappling with high stress levels.
  • Resorting to drugs or alcohol as an escape mechanism.

Social Factors

On the other hand, the societal structures we live within, our educational backgrounds, and our financial standings can significantly shape our experiences and responses to such a life-altering event. Each individual’s social context, from their educational background to their financial standing, casts a unique shadow on their cancer journey, influencing their emotional and psychological responses.

Although there are plenty of different factors that might contribute to the development of PTSD in a cancer patient, there are some situations that are more common than others:


A limited formal education might not just restrict access to resources but could also pose challenges in comprehending the labyrinth of medical terminologies and procedures. This can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed or isolated during consultations or treatments.

Economic Standing

For those struggling with economic challenges or living on a limited income, the financial implications of cancer treatments can be another mountain to climb. The medical bills can add to the stress of the disease itself, making every step of the journey even more devastating.

Family Support

The presence or absence of family support can significantly influence one’s journey through cancer. A strong family network can offer emotional solace, practical assistance, and a sense of belonging during trying times. Conversely, those without this support might feel isolated, amplifying the emotional challenges they face.

Beyond these individual scenarios, the broader socio-economic landscape further molds the cancer experience. Economic roadblocks can magnify the emotional strain, making every decision, from choosing treatments to scheduling appointments, a potential source of anxiety.

Additionally, misunderstandings or less-than-ideal interactions with healthcare providers can create feelings of alienation. In such challenging times, the significance of a robust support system becomes essential. Whether it’s family, friends, or community groups, their role in treatment cannot be overstated.

Which Factors Make it Less Likely To Experience PTSD?

Every cancer journey is deeply personal, and while the path may be fraught with challenges, there are certain aspects of one’s life that can offer a protective embrace against the storm of post-traumatic stress disorder. These elements, ranging from the strength of personal relationships to one’s mindset, can make a profound difference in how one copes with the emotional distress of a cancer diagnosis.

According to our findings, these are the factors that could positively impact the outcome of cancer treatments, including reducing the probability of presenting symptoms of PTSD in the future:

  • Good support system
  • Low level of stress before receiving the diagnosis
  • Having a higher level of education and income
  • Being in a relationship or counting with a supportive family or friends
  • Low levels of anxiety and depression
  • Having a shorter treatment time
  • Not having cancer recur

As we continue to understand the intricate relationship between cancer and PTSD, it becomes evident that our emotional well-being is as crucial as our physical health. Embracing these positive factors, seeking support when needed, and acknowledging the strength within can make the path to recovery not just about surviving, but truly thriving.

Cancer-Related Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms

Post-traumatic stress (PTS) has been studied in a variety of cancers, including melanoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, breast cancer, and many other types of cancers. The following are some of the symptoms of cancer-related post-traumatic stress (PTS) that patients may experience:

  • Avoidant behaviors.
  • Intrusive thoughts.
  • Feelings of anxiety that do not go away, keep getting worse, and may affect daily life.
  • Having nightmares and flashbacks.
  • Avoiding places, events, people, or things that bring back bad memories.
  • Strong feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or shame.
  • Trouble sleeping or concentrating.
  • Continuous feelings of fear or anger.
  • Loss of interest in activities and relationships that used to be enjoyable.
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as misusing drugs or alcohol to avoid stress.

The emotional challenges associated with cancer-related PTSD are vast. The anxiety that precedes a diagnosis, the challenges of treatments like chemotherapy or radiation, and the fear of recurrence can all contribute to PTSD symptoms.

In some cases, these symptoms persist or even intensify over time. For instance, visiting a doctor’s office or hospital for routine treatments and even Googling your cancer diagnosis can trigger PTSD symptoms, leading some survivors to avoid these appointments altogether.

Treatment of Cancer-Related Post-Traumatic Stress

The impact of a cancer diagnosis isn’t solely a physical battle; it’s an emotional and psychological one too. As patients fight against the uncertainties of their health outcomes, the shadows of post-traumatic stress can loom large.

Addressing this unique form of PTSD requires a blend of understanding its intricacies and applying tried-and-true therapeutic methods. Here, we delve into treatments that are not just about healing but about reclaiming one’s sense of self after the storm of cancer.


The journey through cancer is as much an emotional odyssey as it is a physical one. Psychotherapy, often termed “talk therapy,” provides a sanctuary for patients to navigate these emotional waters. With the guidance of trained professionals, patients can confront, process, and manage the myriad feelings that arise from their diagnosis and treatment.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) stands out as a particularly effective approach for cancer patients. By focusing on identifying and challenging negative thought patterns, CBT equips patients with tools to combat anxiety, depression, and fear related to their diagnosis.

Group therapy further complements individual sessions, offering a communal space for patients to share experiences and derive strength from shared journeys. This collective environment fosters understanding, reduces feelings of isolation, and introduces diverse coping strategies.


Antidepressants are medications primarily designed to treat depression, but they have also shown efficacy in treating other conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For individuals diagnosed with cancer, the traumatic experience of the diagnosis, treatment, and the overarching implications of the disease can sometimes lead to the development of PTSD. Antidepressants can play a crucial role in managing the symptoms of this condition.

This is true because the mechanism behind antidepressants involves the modulation of neurotransmitters in the brain, which are essential for mood regulation. By adjusting the levels of these chemicals, antidepressants can help alleviate symptoms like mood swings, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts.

There are various types of antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which have been particularly noted for their effectiveness in treating PTSD symptoms.

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques

Mindfulness, rooted in ancient meditation practices, emphasizes staying present and fully engaging with the here and now. It teaches individuals to observe their thoughts and feelings without judgment.

By doing so, patients can gain a clearer perspective on their emotions, reducing the intensity of negative feelings and enhancing their overall well-being. Progressive muscle relaxation, on the other hand, involves tensing and then relaxing each muscle group, promoting physical relaxation and reducing muscle tension—a common physical manifestation of stress.

Support Groups

There’s an unparalleled strength in shared stories. In the realm of cancer recovery, support groups become more than just gatherings; they transform into havens of understanding and empathy. Here, amidst shared nods and silent acknowledgments, survivors find solace in collective resilience, drawing strength from each other’s journeys and forging ahead with renewed hope.

Recognizing The Importance of Help

Dr. Caryn Mei Hsien Chan highlighted a common misconception among cancer patients. Many believe they must maintain an unyielding front of positivity from diagnosis through treatment.

To them, seeking emotional support might seem like admitting defeat. But it’s essential to understand that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness. Addressing emotional upheaval, especially feelings of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, is crucial for holistic healing.

Post-Traumatic Stress in Children With Cancer and Cancer Survivors

Childhood cancer is a journey that extends beyond the confines of a hospital room. While medical advancements have pushed survival rates for some pediatric cancers over 90%, the emotional challenge often remains uncharted territory. Research shows up to 73% of child and adult survivors display signs of post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS), even if they don’t fully meet the PTSD criteria. These can impact their daily life, from school achievements to social interactions, generating life-lasting consequences in many cases.

But it’s not just the young warriors who bear the emotional weight. Parents, standing by their side, often find themselves fighting against heightened levels of stress and anxiety. In some instances, they shoulder even more profound PTSD levels than their children, a testament to the battles they fight behind the scenes.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I consider seeking professional help for my PTSD?

If you find daily functioning becoming challenging, if nightmares or flashbacks become frequent, or if you feel persistently anxious or depressed, it’s time to seek professional guidance.

Are there specific support groups for cancer patients with PTSD?

Yes, many organizations offer support groups tailored for cancer patients, addressing their unique challenges, including PTSD.

How does PTSD affect cancer treatment adherence and outcomes?

PTSD can lead to avoidance behaviors. Patients might skip treatments or follow-up appointments, which can adversely affect outcomes.

What are the long-term effects of untreated PTSD in cancer survivors?

Untreated PTSD can lead to chronic anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments. It can also strain personal relationships and affect overall quality of life.

Help Cancer Patients Today

More than 10,000 people have been in Gateway-funded trials. Help even more patients feel better and live longer by investing in transformational cancer research.


Fundraise for Gateway

Through GateRaisers, our DIY fundraising program, the money you raise helps us bring cures to people living with all types of cancer. Be a GateRaiser.


Read More

Living Better with Cancer
Blog Articles

Help Cancer Patients Today

More than 10,000 people have been in Gateway-funded trials. Help even more patients feel better and live longer by investing in transformational cancer research.

Fundraise for Gateway

Through GateRaisers, our DIY fundraising program, the money you raise helps us bring cures to people living with all types of cancer. Be a GateRaiser.

Get Started