Sunday, March 08, 2015

Posttraumatic Stress – A Frequent Consequence of Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

Given the limited state of our current medical knowledge, a diagnosis of breast cancer followed by extensive cancer treatment usually constitutes a prolonged trauma. Therefore when breast cancer survivors appear in psychotherapists' offices, they are likely to be suffering from some degree of post-traumatic stress even if their reasons for seeking treatment seem to be unrelated to their cancer experiences.

Patients, their families and their medical providers may be unaware that it is not unusual for survivors to continue to experience things like irritability, difficulty concentrating, trouble getting a good night's sleep or heightened anxiety for some time after breast cancer treatment has ended. An increased sense of vulnerability is also a very common aftereffect of cancer treatment even when the cancer was caught at an early stage, and patients are told at the end of their treatment that they are cancer-free.

Survivors may display ways of coping that are typical for persons who have experienced trauma. They may for example, become hypervigilant with respect to cancer. Every time they have a new ache or pain that does not have an obvious cause, they may begin to think that the cancer has returned and experience acute emotional distress. Similarly every time they hear that a food, a product or something else in the environment may be correlated with an increased risk of cancer, they may immediately try to avoid that substance. This is of course, a common and reasonable way that humans try to increase their sense of control and decrease their level of free-floating anxiety. However in today’s news/media environment, research study results are often reported without the media outlet taking the time to determine which of the studies have been well designed and which are merely preliminary or speculative. One media outlet after another may pick up and report the same story without ever investigating the actual significance of a study’s results, yielding to the pressure of our twenty-four hour news cycle. It is easy to see how a person who is trying to reduce her exposure to environmental toxins can end up feeling more stressed and overwhelmed.

Posttraumatic stress symptoms are often part of “the new normal”, a phrase that has been adopted by oncologists to describe how their patients are different after cancer treatment from how they were before cancer treatment. These symptoms often make up a significant part of “the new normal” and they can linger for a long time. Fortunately psychotherapists now know a lot about how to identify and treat them, so that survivors can obtain relief and an increased sense of control over their lives.

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