Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cancer and PTSD

"Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it." - Michel de Montaigne

My seniors have started my favorite novel of the year: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (If you haven't read it, do so immediately if not sooner.) The narrative is told from the perspective of Chief, who is a paranoid schizophrenic - institutionalized in a psych ward in the early 1960s.

As part of the unit we go over various mental illnesses including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is generally defined as an anxiety disorder that a person can develop after experiencing or seeing a life-threatening or extremely frightening event. As I was reading my notes on PTSD I began wondering if those who survived cancer could develop the disorder.

Sure enough, I found several articles explaining that cancer patients (and their caregivers) are at risk for developing PTSD - especially if they had long hospital stays, cancer recurrences, or painful treatments. One of the most interesting pieces of information I found explained what are called "protective factors" - or variables that decrease a cancer patient's risk for developing PTSD, which include increased social support, accurate information about the stage of cancer, and a satisfactory relationship with their medical team.

I survived severe trauma as a child and young adult, which is probably why I never reacted negatively to my cancer diagnosis. People thought I was so brave - handling my surgeries so nonchalantly, but really it was probably just a coping mechanism I'd developed from a very young age... avoiding the reality of the danger by burying it.

I don't think any cancer patient ever forgets the reality that the cancer could come back. My doctors all tell me not to worry, but I continually hear stories identical to mine (carcinoid in the appendix, followed by a totally clean right hemicolectomy) that end with mets in the liver.  Sometimes I feel stuck and don't want to plan too far into the future just in case it returns. That's no way to live - it's like you're constantly sitting on the edge of your seat in a horror movie as the score crescendos, right before the dumb girl goes to "check out a noise" in the basement... where the killer lurks.

There is a  NJ carcinoid support group that has been on my radar for a while. Perhaps I should make it a priority to go.

Good Links: Article on Cancer and PTSD
National Cancer Institute's Article on PTSD
Breast Cancer and PTSD


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  2. Hey Miss J! I just stumbled across your blog again and wanted to let you know that I literally tell all of my friends about how wonderful of a teacher you are, AND I watched the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest this past weekend! I hope all is well, I miss you and I'll be sure to visit once I'm home from school. With love, Carmela. xoxo

    1. Carmela !!! I was just thinking about you :) I am so glad that you are doing well at school, I miss you very much. Thanks for the vote of confidence - my students are the inspiration for my life. I am so blessed to have you still in my life. I hope to see you soon!

  3. Sounds like you're doing great. Keep up the good fight against carcinoid and the great blogging.

  4. Hi Marlene,
    I'm so grateful you addressed this subject. I believe anyone who receives a Cancer diagnosis has a level of PTSD - then add our multiple surgeries, scans, tests etc - Oh yeah. I'd like to see our Specialists, actually all our medical team, aware of the psychological & emotional healing & support we need. Aware to the extent the appropriate counseling & other healing modalities are part of the treatment.
    Maybe I have another "purpose"? I will do my best!
    Sending you white light for healing, strength & peace.

  5. Thanks Debra - I really think that this is an element of the cancer that is left undiscussed. I appreciate you sharing your "purpose" with other zebras!