Written by Lindsay Modglin
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Jake Prigoff
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that develops after a highly stressful event and can cause symptoms that include nightmares, acute anxiety, and uncontrollable negative thoughts. Although PTSD is often associated with traumatic childhoods, violent crime, and wartime, cancer patients and their caregivers are at an increased risk for developing this condition.
One study that recruited 469 patients over the age of 18 years determined that one in five cancer patients develop some form of PTSD. “One strength of our study was that we examined PTSD across a spectrum of different cancer types, compared to most other studies which have examined only specific cancer types, such as breast cancer,” said senior investigator Fremonta Meyer.
Cancer patients may develop PTSD symptoms for one or more of the following reasons:
- Learning about the diagnosis
- Intense pain
- Exhausting treatment plans
- Prolonged stays at medical facilities
- Fear of cancer spreading and/or returning after remission
Although PTSD can negatively affect a patient’s road to recovery, there are multiple resources that can help. In addition to recommendations made from the patient’s treatment team, these five tips may help one cope with a new cancer diagnosis.
1. Learn to accept the reality of your diagnosis
A cancer diagnosis often, understandably, comes as a shock. It’s important to take inventory: to collect your feelings and understand your diagnosis. Learning to accept the reality of the diagnosis is the first step to moving forward and maintaining a positive mindset.
Upon diagnosis, make a list with any questions you may have and refer back to this list when speaking to your care team about your treatment plan. Writing down your questions, thoughts, and feelings can help you process your emotions and develop a clearer understanding of what your treatment may entail.
Some questions you may ask are:
- What type of cancer do I have?
- Where is the cancer located in my body?
- How far has it spread?
- What are my treatment options?
- How long will treatment last?
- What are the side effects of my doctor’s proposed treatment regimen?
Every cancer journey is different. There will always be a level of uncertainty that surrounds this diagnosis. Although these feelings are scary, getting the answers to your tough questions can help ease the immense stress that can trigger PTSD symptoms.
2. Find a support group
“It is always important to consider seeking out social support,” Dr. Renee Exelbert, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, cancer survivor, and author of Chemo Muscles, told OneVillage.
Exelbert added that social support has been linked to an array of health benefits, including decreased depression, anxiety, and pain, as well as decreased mortality.
Having a strong support system looks different for everyone. Therapy sessions, support groups, apps, and remote mental health services are all becoming more accessible and are great options for those seeking support for a cancer diagnosis.
If you’re not sure where to start, “seek out support from those friends or acquaintances who have experienced or may be experiencing similar emotions or circumstances,” Exelbert advised. Try reaching out to these people to discuss the resources that have been beneficial for them. Cancer survivors are often willing to share their stories and offer guidance to others in similar situations.
Additionally, many oncology care teams will have a list of resources and support groups, so be sure to ask for these at your next appointment. This is often the best way to find support groups in your area.
3. Practice relaxation techniques like mindful breathing or meditation
Many studies have been done on the effectiveness of mind-body practices on PTSD. A review of 16 published studies found that mind-body practices like deep breathing and meditation have a significantly positive effect on PTSD symptoms including decreased levels of anxiety and depression and increased levels of energy and ability to cope with stress.
The mental benefits of deep breathing are especially beneficial during times of increased stress. If you find yourself battling an episode of acute anxiety, try practicing this method of deep breathing:
- Close your eyes
- Take a deep breath by using your diaphragm
- Hold the breath for as long as you feel comfortable holding it
- Exhale slowly, focusing on relaxing the muscles throughout your body
- Repeat these steps at least two more times
- Remain still for a few minutes
You don’t have to relocate to an isolated island to perform meditation techniques. The mindfulness technique is all about working on the ability to find a peaceful setting anywhere in which you feel relaxed enough to let your mind slow down.
Some meditate by repeating prayers, while others sit down in a relaxed position while focusing on their breathing. There are also plenty of guided meditations available on YouTube and Spotify.
4. Try alternative therapies
Several alternative therapies can help you prevent the development of PTSD symptoms and help reduce the severity of your PTSD.
“Activities that allow for an individual to contribute the parts of their identity unrelated to cancer, [like] work, volunteering, writing, art, [or] music … are also helpful for establishing a sense of self, security, and permanence where cancer does not dominate,” said Exelbert.
Art therapy is a technique that has been shown to lower pain and anxiety levels. Creating art is also an effective way to convey your emotions, which can improve your confidence and mindset during treatment and recovery.
An art therapy session may include:
- Clay sculpting
- Collage making
- Digital art
Scents from highly fragrant oils can create calming sensations, especially when paired with meditation. Oils infused with scents like lavender can help relieve your pain and stress.
Aromatherapy is a practice that dates back thousands of years, but it’s important to do your research and learn to use them safely. While undergoing treatment, patients will sometimes experience sensitivities to certain smells, so it’s often helpful to start with smaller amounts.
Music therapy is a practice that encourages PTSD patients to play and/or listen to music, as well as write lyrics to songs that express hidden emotions. This alternative therapy relies on the same concept of expression that participants in art therapy sessions use.
A trained musical therapist may oversee your sessions to ensure you’re getting the most out of the experience. If this setting doesn’t feel like the right fit for you, there is no harm in experimenting with music therapy techniques in the comfort of your own home.
5. Create an exercise routine that is realistic for your body
It’s no secret that exercise reduces stress. Choosing a routine that is right for your body can help ease the symptoms of PTSD, while also promoting overall wellness and keeping your body physically active.
Exercises that prove to be effective include:
- Core training
- Aerobic training
- Strength Training
- Resistance training
It’s important to check with your physician before participating in any of these exercise routines. Let your body be the guide for what feels right for you. Never push yourself to do anything you aren’t comfortable with.
Many fitness centers run exercise programs that cater to the mental and physical health needs of members that are recovering from a serious disease such as cancer. Look into the options that may be available in your area.
No matter what you use to cope, the most important thing is to discuss it with your provider and design a treatment plan that feels right to you. “Coping with a cancer diagnosis is tremendously difficult and frightening,” Exelbert said. “However, it is possible to not only get through the cancer experience but live in a way that is more empowering, fulfilling, and meaningful than before cancer.”
Lindsay Modglin is a nurse and freelance writer, specializing in health and wellness topics for a variety of platforms. Her personal experience coping with her son's neuroblastoma diagnosis and her mother's ongoing battle with stage IV breast cancer stems her passion for supporting others through their cancer journey. She aims to create educational content that provides value to her readers. When she’s not writing, you can find her enjoying the outdoors, traveling, or spending time with her husband and three children.