Crushing Cancer: Cancer survivors, patients may have untreated PTSD

Published: Sep. 24, 2018 at 4:48 PM EDT
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Many of us have been there when our friends or loved ones receive their final chemotherapy treatment or ring the bell marking what seems like the end of their battle with cancer.

But for many patients, anxiety remains even into remission

Some doctors call this "Cancer PTSD" and say it's a very treatable side effect to a cancer diagnosis.

For cancer patients a chance to "ring the bell" signaling the end of treatment is long awaited.

But peace of mind might not ring as clearly.

"Even up until the time an oncologist tells you, you're free to go to a regular doctor now, I still personally get anxiety of, it's happened before, it's happened again," said Cathy Cockrell.

Cockrell has been a paramedic for years, working and teaching others how to treat the toughest patients. But she's still dealing with how to treat herself. She's dealt with several cancer scares and surgeries, and while her doctors say she's doing great now, worry lingers.

"You always have in the back of your mind, you know, is this your year?"

Cockrell said she especially feels this when her annual check-ups roll around in December, and said she can sense herself becoming anxious around the holidays.

"Many people suffer with treatable anxiety, treatable depression, not knowing that they can give voice to it," said Dr. Robert Trestman, a psychiatrist with Carilion Clinic and leader of the department at Virginia Tech Carilion.

He said he's worked in the field of psycho-oncology for years, calling it a mature field.

He says many cancer patients and survivors also experience anxiety and depression, which may never even be diagnosed.

"And this is the situation where you're own body is turning against you," Dr. Trestman said." And you can't even have a sense of certainty about who you are and that your body is working to support you because in this way, it's not."

Trestman said many people across the nation who experience cancer get little or no psychological or psychiatric support, but that it can be immensely helpful to a patient.

"When those are treated, they're able to tolerate chemotherapy and radiation, recovery from surgery far better than those without those supports and so because of that are able to engage in the business of living far more effectively than those who don't have those resources."

Trestman said those supports include care from a licensed therapist, support groups, healthy diet and exercise and being able to find a trusted confidante with whom you can talk.

He suggested that patients and survivors should ask themselves:

-Do you avoid the topic of your cancer

-Do you feel at times emotionally numb

-Do you have dreams about your diagnosis or treatment.

If so, Trestman recommends reaching out to a professional who can help. Thought he admits the healthcare industry has room to grow in recognizing these symptoms in their patients and allowing for access to resources. He attributes it partially to the business of health care, and the fact that doctors often have to set their feelings for their patients aside in order to do the job.

"There is no dress rehearsal. This is life, this is our only opportunity. Make the most of it," he recommends. "And the small investment in spending just one hour in an initial evaluation and interview may make all the difference and open up new avenues that could bring greater appreciation for life, greater joy, greater opportunities."

Cockrell agrees there's much work to be done on the health care side of the issue.

"You care enough to ask me how I'm doing two years post-operatively, that's important," she said of health care providers. "That's important."

Cockrell said over the years, knowing her body and being open with her doctors has been a huge benefit to her. She said self-exams are vital and recommends everyone keeps themselves up to date on regular check ups.

She said she keeps busy to keep herself distracted and has friends and doctors she know she can talk to.

"To know that you have somebody that you can talk to unconditionally, that's super helpful,' she said.