When one hears the term, PTSD or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, one immediately thinks of a person who has suffered a traumatic injury in combat. Lately there has been interest from the medical profession in PTSD among patients who have/had cancer. Sometimes this is referred to as CR-PTSD ( Cancer related posttraumatic stress disorder).
No one wants to have the "Big C." A cancer diagnosis can cause fear, physical and emotional suffering, a strain on financial stability, as well as alienation from family and friends. When the word "Cancer" is used, chemotherapy, hair loss, nausea and vomiting, grueling treatments, physical impairment as well as other scary thoughts come to mind. Sometimes there is even a stigma associated with cancer- perhaps the location of the cancer or making the incorrect assumption that the patient was a smoker, a heavy alcohol user, etc.
With thyroid cancer, as many if not all of us know, we have to deal with hearing that our cancer is "the Good cancer". This marginalizes our cancer, as well as our feelings about having the disease, treatment and outcomes. Personally, I used to sort of agree and go on when someone said this to me. Now, I do not suffer fools, one might say. I am not impolite, but I will point out that while thyroid cancer is generally easily treated, and outcomes are generally good, THERE IS NO GOOD CANCER! Outcomes and treatment for thyroid cancer depend on the type(s) of thyroid cancer one has. Unless you have/had thyroid cancer, a person probably has no idea that there are several types, around 5 I think.
According to the American Cancer Society, thyroid cancer patients have about a 33% increased risk of developing a second primary cancer. ( In my case, this was breast cancer). While this is an anxiety creating statistic, early detection is key to good outcomes. The best way to deal with this is to have all recommended screening tests ( mammogram, colonoscopy, etc. ) on a regular basis.
CR-PTSD, like PTSD, is basically caused by the failure to recover from a traumatic event. Some symptoms of CR-PTSD are as follows: nightmares, reliving the event over and over, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, pain in a mastectomy scar ( or other location), chemotherapy related nausea and or vomiting. Patients suffering from CR-PTSD can experience anxiety, fear, irritability, and the feeling of being emotionally numb- or detached from the situation. This detachment can cause isolation and disengagement.
Patients with CR-PTSD or PTSD, react to certain cues or triggers, which may be non-life threatening ones, but somehow related to the cancer experience. To sum this up simply, the amygdala part of the brain is in a state of hyper-arousal, and can not tell the difference between dangerous and non-dangerous events. I will use myself as an example. When I was receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer, I usually went to the restroom after checking in. The anti-bacterial hand soap had a strong fragrance that was very unpleasant to me. That triggered the "chemotherapy nausea/vomiting" cue that still remains- six years after my chemotherapy was completed. Even when I am returning for a checkup and blood work, just getting the slightest whiff of the hand soap triggers my nausea ( and occasionally vomiting).
According to a report in the Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal, 2019 Spring issue, "PTSD symptoms are considered pathological when they persist for more than one month post-trauma". The article also stated that " PTSD is often misdiagnosed as anxiety or depression. This makes treating the PTSD challenging to recognize and treat."
According to the above mentioned journal article, CR-PTSD can negatively impact patients health, treatment and quality of life. Someone with PTSD could purposely miss doctor's appointments, fail to complete treatments, avoid routine health screening tests, avoid social interaction with friends- so the person does not have to talk about the cancer. These behaviors can actually affect overall survival of the patient.
A good take-away statement from this article is as follows: " Cancer related PTSD is often missed by a patient's clinical team, and can impact treatment outcomes, recovery, and quality of life post-treatment. The prevalence of PTSD is greater post-cancer compared to the general population."
The authors of this study recommended that patients with CR-PTSD be referred to a specialist who is trained in treating patients with PTSD. In researching this subject, I found that the statistics concerning how many patients have CR-PTSD to be wildly different. For that reason, I have not included any specific percentages, just the above mentioned prevalence of PTSD in cancer patients.
Personally, my CR-PTSD is fairly mild and seems to be improving a bit. I have a tendency to be anxious- even before I had two cancer diagnoses. I am sleeping better overall, but there is one thing I can not abide. That would be the anti-bacterial hand soap in my Oncologist's office!
Seriously, if one suspects CR-PTSD, please discuss this with your Oncologist, PCP or other health care specialist. This is a real disorder, brought on by cancer induced trauma. There is no shame in having CR-PTSD. Treatment is key- please seek treatment for a better quality of life.