What Is the Connection between PTSD and Cancer?

Lily Ruha

The connection between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and cancer is that the trauma of a cancer diagnosis and treatment might increase the likelihood of PTSD in patients. Receiving the diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease, undergoing extensive and challenging treatments and the perpetual fear of losing one's life all contribute to greater PTSD risk. Whether the reverse correlation is true — that experiences of extreme trauma or stress might cause people to get cancer — had not been firmly established as of 2011. Some medical experts suggest an indirect link between PTSD and cancer, wherein extreme stress leads to behaviors that increase cancer risk. Research also has examined the connection between stress and the growth and spread of cancerous cells.

Increased stress may cause people to engage in behaviors that elevate cancer risks, such as smoking.
Increased stress may cause people to engage in behaviors that elevate cancer risks, such as smoking.

The link between PTSD and cancer is apparent in cancer patients who perceive and react to the diagnosis as a traumatic experience. Their symptoms are similar to that of individuals who experience traumatic events, such as soldiers in a war or victims of a natural disaster. Reliving the news of the diagnosis might cause anxiety. Flashbacks to the nausea and vomiting experienced after chemotherapy treatments might create emotional distress. Fear of dying can result in nightmares, lack of concentration or a loss of interest in social situations.

Researchers have studied the connection between chronic stress and the growth of cancerous cells.
Researchers have studied the connection between chronic stress and the growth of cancerous cells.

Researchers also have examined whether having traumatic experiences leads to the development of cancer. Experiencing a painful divorce or surviving a severe financial crisis are examples of stressful events that create personal insecurity or feelings of danger. Some patients' belief about PTSD and cancer is that life traumas caused their cancer. Medical research has explored the vulnerability of the immune system during stressful events with inconclusive results. Researchers generally agree that increased stress levels might cause individuals to engage in behaviors that elevate cancer risks, such as drug abuse, overeating or smoking.

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The trauma of cancer treatment may increase the likelihood of PTSD in patients.
The trauma of cancer treatment may increase the likelihood of PTSD in patients.

Although a causal link had not been established as of 2011, evidence has linked PTSD and cancer growth. An increase in tumor size and cancer spread have been found in cancer patients who are experiencing stress. The general consensus, however, is that it is difficult to study this causal relationship effectively because stress is not easily isolated from lifestyle habits, toxic exposures and natural disease progression.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition that results from physical or emotional trauma.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition that results from physical or emotional trauma.

Treatment for cancer survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder involves a combination of cognitive therapy, group therapy and family therapy. In cognitive therapy, patients are often taught to examine their triggers and replace negative thoughts with more positive interpretations. Group therapy helps cancer survivors feel less alone in their struggles. Family therapy guides a survivor's relatives through understanding the dynamics of PTSD and cancer, and it helps them create a supportive environment for their loved one.

Cognitive behavioral therapy may be helpful for individuals suffering from PTSD or cancer.
Cognitive behavioral therapy may be helpful for individuals suffering from PTSD or cancer.

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