Cancer & PTSD

Heather Miller recently wrote an article on the effect of cancer causing PTSD, that I found interesting and had never thought of before.  It all began when going through radiation and her oncologist asked her to use the moisturizers and soaps that her office provided.  There was a very unique smell of rich emollient oils and flowers in the moisturizer.

She later found a small tube of the moisturizer shoved in the back of her bathroom drawer.  By smelling it again, it sent her back to those last days of active treatment, mainly the irritated skin, the exhaustion and the general feeling that her body had been sucked dry like a raisin.  When the fragrance hit her she wanted to throw the tube out the window.

In the scope of post-traumatic stress disorder this would be a pretty trivial incident and that her experience of cancer treatment was far from being the worst out there.  Someone is always suffering more from cancer, but her instant recognition of that moisturizer fragrance and the fight-or-flight feelings it inspired, were suddenly all too real.

Those affected by PTSD may have a different group of symptoms that may include one or many of the following:

  • Nightmares or flashbacks
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Recurring, unwanted thoughts
  • Avoiding certain situations or people
  • Loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
  • Strong feelings of guilt, hopelessness or anger



In 1980 PTSD was first recognized as a disorder but in 1994 the diagnosis was applied to cancer patients.  According to the doctors PTSD affects a significant number of cancer survivors.  Nearly 1/3 of Hodgkins lymphoma patients suffered from persistent or worsening PTSD according to a 2011 study.  The study showed that 1 in 5 breast cancer patients had PTSD symptoms 3 months after treatment and parents of childhood cancer survivors may also experience PTSD.

The more the cancer treatment is, the higher the chances are that it may cause PTSD.  Those suffering from PTSD are more likely to avoid recommended follow-up care.  This condition may begin immediately after the traumatic event, or may surface months or even years later.  A combination of psychotherapy, support groups and medication is usually involved in treatment.

Anyone feeling like they may be struggling with PTSD can find help from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America on-line referral service.  The American Psychosocial Oncology Society operates a phone hotline that can provide short-term help: (866-276-7443).  There is a database of 1,000 therapists nationwide with APOS who have experience working with cancer patients and survivors.

Never be ashamed to seek counseling from the above organizations.  There is a lot of help out there for you, so you aren’t alone.

Dr Fredda Branyon