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Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PDQ®)

  • Last Modified: 12/12/2013

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Diagnosis and Symptoms

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is defined as the development of certain symptoms following a mentally stressful event that involved actual death or the threat of death, serious injury, or a threat to oneself or others. For the person who has experienced a diagnosis of cancer, the specific trauma that triggers PTSD is unclear. It may be the actual diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, aspects of the treatment process, test results, information given about recurrence, or some other aspect of the cancer experience. Learning that one's child has cancer is traumatic for many parents. Because the cancer experience involves so many upsetting events, it is much more difficult to single out one event as a cause of stress than it is for other traumas, such as natural disasters or rape. The traumatic event may cause responses of extreme fear, helplessness, or horror and may trigger PTSD symptoms.

PTSD in cancer survivors may be expressed in these specific behaviors:

  • Reliving the cancer experience in nightmares or flashbacks and by continuously thinking about it.
  • Avoiding places, events, and people connected to the cancer experience.
  • Being continuously overexcited, fearful, irritable, and unable to sleep.

To be diagnosed as PTSD, these symptoms must last for at least one month and cause significant problems in the patient's personal relationships, employment, or other important areas of daily life. Patients who have these symptoms for less than one month often develop PTSD later.