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Cancer-Related Post-traumatic Stress (PDQ®)


For a number of years, investigators have reported stress or trauma-related symptoms such as avoidant behaviors, intrusive thoughts, and heightened arousal in survivors of cancer.[1-4] These symptoms resemble those seen in persons who have experienced traumatic events such as military combat, violent personal assault (e.g., rape), natural disasters, or other threats to life and are referred to collectively as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[5-10] Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) condition with a profile similar to that of PTSD but a shorter time to onset, within 4 weeks of a traumatic event. Thus the occurrence of post-traumatic stress (PTS) with trauma-related symptoms in patients with cancer has been under increasing study, influenced by changes in the diagnostic criteria for PTSD in the DSM, fourth edition (DSM-IV).[5] The DSM, third revised edition (DSM-III-R),[11] specifically excluded patients with medical illnesses such as cancer from PTSD. The diagnostic criteria for PTSD in the DSM-IV, text revision (DSM-IV-TR), however, specifically include “being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness” as one example of a traumatic event.[12] Thus, people with histories of cancer can now be evaluated and considered at risk for PTS and related symptoms.

Reviews note that PTS has been studied in a variety of cancers, including melanoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, breast cancer, and mixed cancers. Studies have varied, however, in assessment of patients for the full syndrome of PTSD (i.e., all DSM-IV criteria met) or only some of the PTSD-related symptoms (e.g., intrusive thoughts as measured by the Impact of Event Scale ). Thus, incidence rates have varied accordingly. The incidence of the full syndrome of PTSD (meeting full DSM-IV diagnostic criteria) ranges from 3% to 4% in early-stage patients recently diagnosed to 35% in patients evaluated after treatment. When incidence of PTSD-like symptoms (not meeting the full diagnostic criteria) is measured, the rates are higher, ranging from 20% in patients with early-stage cancer to 80% in those with recurrent cancer.

Factors suggesting which patients might be at increased risk for the development of PTS and PTSD have not been extensively studied; however, one study of women with early-stage breast cancer [13] found an association with PTSD-like symptoms in patients with the following characteristics:

  • Younger age.
  • Lower income.
  • Fewer years of formal education.

Another study of men and women treated with bone marrow transplant [14] found that lower levels of social support and the use of avoidance coping correlated significantly to a higher number of PTSD-like symptoms. One German study [15] that evaluated patients with breast cancer for PTSD and ASD concluded that patients with lifetime PTSD (8.7%) were much more likely to experience cancer-related ASD or PTSD (odds ratio, 14.1).

Although no specific therapies for PTS symptoms in the cancer setting have been developed, treatment modalities used with other people with PTSD can be useful in alleviating distress in cancer patients and survivors.

In this summary, unless otherwise stated, evidence and practice issues as they relate to adults are discussed. The evidence and application to practice related to children may differ significantly from information related to adults. When specific information about the care of children is available, it is summarized under its own heading.


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  3. Kornblith AB, Anderson J, Cella DF, et al.: Hodgkin disease survivors at increased risk for problems in psychosocial adaptation. The Cancer and Leukemia Group B. Cancer 70 (8): 2214-24, 1992. [PUBMED Abstract]
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  11. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-III-R. 3rd rev. ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1987.
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  13. Cordova MJ, Andrykowski MA, Kenady DE, et al.: Frequency and correlates of posttraumatic-stress-disorder-like symptoms after treatment for breast cancer. J Consult Clin Psychol 63 (6): 981-6, 1995. [PUBMED Abstract]
  14. Jacobsen PB, Sadler IJ, Booth-Jones M, et al.: Predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder symptomatology following bone marrow transplantation for cancer. J Consult Clin Psychol 70 (1): 235-40, 2002. [PUBMED Abstract]
  15. Mehnert A, Koch U: Prevalence of acute and post-traumatic stress disorder and comorbid mental disorders in breast cancer patients during primary cancer care: a prospective study. Psychooncology 16 (3): 181-8, 2007. [PUBMED Abstract]
  • Updated: January 7, 2015