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Cancer-Related Post-traumatic Stress (PDQ®)

Screening for Cancer-Related Post-traumatic Stress (PTS)

The cancer experience is more than one stressful event.

Cancer may involve stressful events that repeat or continue over time. The patient may suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress anytime from diagnosis through completion of treatment and possible cancer recurrence, so screening may be needed more than once. Different screening methods may be used to find out if the patient is having symptoms of PTS or PTSD.

In patients who have a history of PTSD from a previous trauma, symptoms may start again by certain triggers during their cancer treatment (for example, being inside MRI or CT scanners). These patients also may have problems adjusting to cancer and cancer treatment.

Cancer survivors and their families need long-term monitoring for post-traumatic stress.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress usually begin within the first 3 months after the trauma, but sometimes they do not appear for months or even years afterwards. Therefore, cancer survivors and their families need long-term monitoring.

Some people who have had an upsetting event may show early symptoms but do not have full PTSD. However, patients with these early symptoms often develop PTSD later. These patients and their family members should receive repeated screening and long-term follow-up. See the PDQ summary on Adjustment to Cancer: Anxiety and Distress for more information.

There are many possible triggers for cancer-related post-traumatic stress (PTS) in patients dealing with cancer.

For a patient coping with cancer, the specific trauma that triggers cancer-related post-traumatic stress isn't always known. Because the cancer experience involves so many upsetting events, it is much harder to know the exact cause of stress than it is for other traumas, such as natural disasters or rape.

Triggers during the cancer experience may include the following:

  • Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
  • Receiving treatment.
  • Waiting for test results.
  • Learning the cancer has recurred.

It is important to know the triggers in order to get treatment.

Symptoms of cancer-related post-traumatic stress (PTS) are a lot like symptoms of other stress-related disorders.

PTS has many of the same symptoms as depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, and panic disorder.

Some of the symptoms that may be seen in post-traumatic stress and in other conditions include:

  • Feeling defensive, irritable, or fearful.
  • Being unable to think clearly.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Avoiding other people.
  • Loss of interest in life.
  • Updated: March 13, 2015