If you’re living with cancer, going through treatment or have completed your treatment, it’s normal to have feelings of anxiety. Anxious emotions like worry, fear and dread usually lessen over time but if they affect your daily life, get worse or persist then it could be a sign of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If this sounds familiar don’t worry, you’re not alone. PTSD can affect many people who have experience living with cancer. There is help available and steps you can take to begin feeling better.
What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder. PSTD can affect anyone who has been through an event or time in their lives that caused them pain, trauma or extreme stress..
Symptoms of PTSD can appear in the first month after a traumatic event, or even take months or years to appear. It can have a significant impact on your day-to-day life, with some people experiencing constant severe symptoms, and others experiencing long periods when symptoms are less noticeable.
Symptoms of PTSD
Specific symptoms can vary but could include a constant heightened state of hypervigilance (feeling on edge). You could find yourself feeling constantly aware of potential threats - real or imagined. This may be triggered by certain situations or a constant feeling.
You may also find yourself experiencing:
- Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (pounding heart, nausea, sweating)
- Irritability or angry outbursts that are out of character
- Irrational and intense fear
- Reduced tolerance to noise (hyperacusis)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling jumpy or easily startled
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Tense muscles
Avoidance or emotional numbing
You may avoid talking about your experience, as well as people or places that remind you of the trauma. Look out for things like:
- Loss of interest in activities and life in general
- Sense of a limited future
- Work-related or relationship problems
- Feeling numb and empty
- Avoidance of people and places
- Feeling isolated and withdrawn
- Inability to remember parts of traumatic events
You may involuntarily or vividly remember the traumatic event or events. This can happen through:
- Flashbacks (feeling or acting as though the event is happening again)
- Nightmares (of the event or of other frightening things)
- Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
You might also be experiencing other symptoms such as:
- Feeling suicidal
- Self-harm or destructive tendencies like drinking, substance abuse, gambling and/or overeating
- Feeling distrustful and suspicious of others
- Guilt, shame, embarrassment or self-blame
- Physical aches and pains
- Overreactions in minor situations
- Fear of being alone and/or being in crowds
It’s normal to experience many of the above symptoms after a traumatic event or period in your life. Although if you’re still experiencing symptoms many weeks, months or years after the event you could have PTSD.
Why do people living with cancer get PSTD?
PTSD is often associated with traumatic events such as war, natural disasters, serious accidents and sexual or physical attacks - but being diagnosed with an illness such as cancer often causes many of the same psychological responses.
Everyone is different, and there isn’t always one single trigger for PTSD. You may be able to pinpoint it to one single event such as your diagnosis, or fear that cancer will return - or it could be a combination of many things over time that has led you to feel this way.
Sometimes it takes a little while for the enormity of what has happened to sink in. At the time the traumatic events were occurring, you may have just felt the need to “get through” or carry on without stopping to process complex emotions, by way of a coping mechanism.
Finishing treatment can also produce mixed emotions. Although you may feel like you’re supposed to be happy, it can be hard to return to normality.
This is also why it’s not uncommon for people to begin having symptoms of PTSD after their cancer treatment has been completed successfully.
What can be done to help?
It can be very difficult to process and come to terms with traumatic events. But, being able to confront and understand your feelings is often the only way to effectively treat PTSD. There are several ways you can do this including:
- Counselling and psychotherapy
- Support groups
- Reading and research
The type of treatment or combination of treatments that are best for you will depend on your circumstances and situation. However, your GP and local cancer support services could help to point you in the right direction.
Counselling and psychotherapy
Some people find that MacMillan Cancer Support and counselling services can help. Helpline 0808 808
Personally, I found that the medical people were great at keeping me alive, but not always so hot at discussing the mental and physical side effects that a cancer diagnosis always brings. I was fortunate because my doctor insisted that I contact MacMillan Cancer Support. I did and they provided me with a counsellor and lots of love and understanding and who over a period of time helped me to completely transform my well-being.” Robert, Live Better With Community Member
BACP also provide information about counsellors who are registered with a professional organisation.
You can also book an appointment with your GP. After an initial assessment, if your GP thinks this will be beneficial to you, they will be able to refer you to a specialist.
With good treatment from a qualified mental health professional, it is possible to lessen symptoms of PTSD or in many cases even remove them completely. This is true even if many years have passed since the traumatic event or events occurred. So, it’s never too late to seek help.
Support groups may also help. Being able to share the experience with others who are going through similar things can be therapeutic, and help you feel less alone.
You can share your thoughts and feelings with other people who have been through the same thing on the Live Better With Cancer community forum.
Medication may also be prescribed, usually in combination with psychotherapy. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can help manage PTSD symptoms and help you feel better.