Coping with Post Traumatic Stress and Cancer

Stressful and life-threatening experiences, such as a cancer diagnosis, can be traumatic experiences. Many people have feelings of fear, anxiety, and helplessness, which can lead to post-traumatic stress (PTS).

Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your own emotional experience. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.

 Triggers of PTS can include:

  • Diagnosis of cancer
  • Surgery
  • Radiation or chemotherapy
  • Hospitalizations
  • Waiting for test or scan results
  • Coming back to your doctor’s office for follow-up visits
  • Cancer recurrence


We all react in different ways to trauma, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no right or wrong way to think, feel, or respond, so don’t judge your reactions or those of others.

 Tips for coping with PTS:
  • Get moving with exercise or activities such as yoga or tai chi.
  • Avoid isolation. Ask for support. Participate in social activities. Reconnect with old friends. Join a support group. Make new connections.
  • Focus on health. Get plenty of sleep. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Eat a well-balanced diet.
  • Practice wellness techniques such as meditation, guided imagery, or reiki.

Know when to get help:

    • Having trouble functioning at home or work​.
    • Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression​.
    • Unable to form close, satisfying relationships​.
    • Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks​.
    • Avoiding more and more things that remind you of cancer​.
    • Emotionally numb and disconnected from others.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk with your healthcare provider or a nurse navigator about how you’ve been feeling.

Tips to help a loved one:
  • Be patient and understanding. Healing from trauma takes time. Be patient with the pace of recovery, and remember that everyone’s response to trauma is different.  Don’t judge your loved one’s reaction against your response or anyone else’s.​
  • Offer practical support to help your loved one get back into a routine. That may mean help with getting groceries or housework, for example, or simply being available to talk or listen.​
  • Don’t pressure your loved one into talking; be available if they want to talk. Some trauma survivors find it difficult to talk about what happened. Don’t force your loved one to open up, but let them know you are there to listen or be available to hang out if they don’t.​
  • Don’t take the trauma symptoms personally. Your loved one may become angry, irritable, withdrawn, or emotionally distant. Remember that this is a result of the trauma and may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.
Source: Cancer Diagnosis and Emotional/Psychological. What to do about it. By Leila Costa, LMFT