Cancer Survivors Likely to Develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

By Rochelle Oliver, Associate News Editor
September 13th, 2021
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.

New studies reveal cancer survivors have trouble coping with stress years after having won their battle with cancer.

In a study conducted by Jonsson Cancer Center, researcher and author Dr. Margaret Stuber, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, took a look at 6,542 adult patients who were childhood cancer survivors.

Stuber found that subjects from this group reported they had experienced extreme anxiety and felt as if they were on edge. Some even mentioned that they had become easily startled and acquired phobias after treatments. They had even begun to avoid things that would trigger memories of having had cancer. Some symptoms were so severe survivors said they weren’t able to function normally.

“Childhood cancer survivors, like others with PTSD, have been exposed to an event that made them feel very frightened or helpless or horrified,” said Stuber who also suggests that today’s treatments are not as harsh as compared to the group he surveyed. Children who are diagnosed and treated in more recent years are far less at risk of developing stress disorders, however still at risk.

(The test group mentioned underwent treatment between the years of 1970 and 1986.)

He also found a correlation between the aggressive nature of the cancer and the severity of post-traumatic stress. Some patients that had harsh treatments were left with scars such as infertility, cognitive impairment and stunted growth.

“People who had more intense treatment are more likely to have these symptoms because their treatment was more traumatic,” Stuber said. “And because more damage was done to their bodies, it makes it more difficult to have a good life later.”

If the stress isn’t handled properly and early, it can manifest and negatively affect a person’s lifestyle and self-esteem.

“They may feel like they’re damaged goods,” Stuber said.

The psychological stressors can lead to difficulty attending college or getting a well-paying job. Survivors may have difficulty obtaining health insurance, can be hesitant to marry because he or she may be sterile, or have avoid having kids out of fear of passing on cancerous genes.

“This study demonstrates that some of these survivors are suffering many years after successful treatment. Development of PTSD can be quite disabling for cancer survivors,” said Stuber.

While this information can be disheartening, the truth is that when treated properly, PSTD is curable.

“This is treatable and not something they have to just live with,” said Stuber.

Stuber’s study ultimately brings to light a need to treat cancer survivors with supportive care and attention like that required to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. This would then avoid or lessen the blow of delayed cognitive effects from treatment.