Cancer as a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

When people believe the diagnosis of cancer is a life-threatening event, they may be thrown into a series of psychological changes that are similar to those triggered by combat, rape, physical, sexual abuse, or other traumatic events that are outside the range of everyday experience. These psychological changes are collectively called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and in the cancer patient may include attempts to avoid all thoughts or feelings associated with the illness; forgetfulness about what the doctor has said; a sudden loss of interest in things that used to be meaningful, such as young children or a job one loved; feeling and acting estranged from others; inability to have or express loving feelings; and a sense of a suddenly foreshortened future.

The person also may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, find it difficult to concentrate, be irritable or quick to burst out in anger, have an exaggerated startle response, or suddenly break out in a sweat or hyperventilate if exposed to something that reminds him of his own trauma (in this case discovering and being told about the illness). These changes don't indicate that a person has suddenly "gone crazy." Instead, he is responding to a deeply disturbing and frightening event in his life.

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