Cancer can completely upend your life and the lives of those who love you. It not only affects you physically, but also has profound emotional and psychological consequences for everyone involved. From the moment you receive the diagnosis to the often challenging or even excruciating medical treatments, cancer brings a whirlwind of difficulties that can lead to symptoms of posttraumatic stress. People living with cancer may have symptoms of post-traumatic stress at any point from diagnosis through treatment, after treatment is complete, or during recurrence. This can range from experiencing irritability, hypervigilance, and sleep disturbances, to loss of interest in life and feeling detached from oneself or reality.
In simple terms, the trauma of cancer can greatly reduce your ability to handle and cope with stress and emotions, narrowing your “window of tolerance.” Within this window of tolerance, we usually feel safe, calm, and capable of effectively managing stress and emotions. However, cancer pushes us to our limits, often causing this window to shrink. It becomes much more challenging to find that sense of safety and calmness in the face of overwhelming stress.
However, survivors of cancer also often report experiencing posttraumatic growth (PTG) after their journey. PTG refers to the positive psychological changes that can occur in people following the experience of a traumatic event or significant life crisis. PTG can include improved relationships, new possibilities for life, a greater appreciation for life, increased personal strength, and spiritual development.
PTG coexists with personal distress and does not diminish the emotional impact of traumatic events or the amount of work that it takes to achieve it. It is not a universal or inevitable outcome for all people who experience trauma, but by working with a mental health practitioner, you can work towards achieving PTG. Embracing the potential for posttraumatic growth means embracing the opportunity to discover new paths and possibilities that may have never been considered before. It means finding a deeper appreciation for what life has to offer and a renewed sense of purpose.
Cancer-related post-traumatic stress. National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/survivorship/new-normal/ptsd-pdq
Jim, H. S., & Jacobsen, P. B. (2008). Posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth in cancer survivorship: A Review. The Cancer Journal, 14(6), 414–419. https://doi.org/10.1097/ppo.0b013e31818d8963
Tedeschi, R.G. & Calhoun, L. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: A New Perspective on Psychotraumatology. 21(4). https://www.bu.edu/wheelock/files/2018/05/Article-Tedeschi-and-Lawrence-Calhoun-Posttraumatic-Growth-2014.pdf
Laura McKinney, B.A., is a therapy and assessment practicum student working under the supervision of Dr. Lila Hakim, C. Psych., currently completing her master’s in psychology. Alongside her placement at CFIR, Laura is training as a therapist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, where she is working with individuals living with cancer. As a practicum student, Laura offers therapy at a discounted rate. Please check out her profile on the Toronto team page on the CFIR website for more information.