Prostate Cancer and PTSD
I have prostate cancer and I’ve had PTSD, but in my case, the two aren’t linked, but they can be.
Although my cancer diagnosis petrified me, and I get stats angst every time I have a PSA check I’d never considered that cancer might cause PTSD. My brush with post traumatic stress disorder happened more than twenty years ago, long before I’d heard of radiotherapy, hormone therapy, prostatectomy and the other ugly words associated with our condition.
My brush with post traumatic stress disorder
I was fit and healthy, in my forties, and working for ABC News who had a habit of sending us to places where guns, bombs, and bullets were in plentiful supply. If you worked for American TV, particularly in the 90s, then more than likely you’d be chasing the Marines all over the globe. I did time in Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict, was in Mogadishu when Bush senior sent in the troops and did a stint in DR Congo and Rwanda during the genocide, all places guaranteed to set your nerves on edge.
And make no mistake some of these were stressful assignments, but as soon as I got home, I was able to wash the filth out of my clothes and stress out of my head. Although I do remember on one occasion being back in London, after a grueling trip to Sarajevo, finding myself flattened on the pavement after a car backfired.
A major wake-up call
But PTSD got me in the end. We were sent on a mission to cover an earthquake in Turkey, just outside Istanbul. We got there unusually fast and made it to some devasted villages long before the emergency services showed up. The locals were digging the dead and living out of pancaked buildings. That night, completely unexpectedly, I started to shake uncontrollably and self-medicated on alcohol. Thereafter I began experiencing panic attacks.
This was a major wake-up call which stared me thinking that my chosen career might have to come to an end. I sought help, benefited from cognitive therapy and recovered. At about the same time my daughter was born, and I decided it was time to come off the road.
So, while my cancer hasn’t caused or reactivated my PTSD, it’s a condition I’m familiar with.
Cancer survivors can experience PTSD
A recent study published by the American Cancer Society suggests that more than 20% of cancer victims have experienced PTSD symptoms.1 This usually happens within six months, but as I know to my cost, it can sneak up on you and not deliver a blow until years afterward.
I assume my symptoms were caused by thoughts of mortality and seeing people suffer, including some of my colleagues, and on occasions being scared out of my wits.
Well there’s nothing like a cancer diagnosis to trigger similar thoughts. And as with reporting on dangerous events, cancer is always going to be more than one stressful episode. Not surprisingly, patients are more at risk when having seemingly beaten the disease, it then makes a most unwelcome return.
What are the common PTSD symptoms?
- Not thinking clearly, though for prostate cancer sufferers this could be ‘brain fog’ often experienced by those on hormone therapy.
- Mood swings, negative thoughts leading to a loss of interest in life. This too can be a product of various cancer treatments.
- Feeling very shaky and uncertain. In my case actually shaking.
- Not sleeping well.
- Panic attacks, feeling breathless, dizzy with tingling in the hands and fingers.
- Chest pains. Like just about everyone else who has experienced a panic attack, I initially thought I was having a heart attack.
- Symptoms can also be triggered by the smells, sounds, and sights linked to cancer treatments. That chemo smell, that hospital waiting room.
Why finding good social support is crucial
For many, having cancer is an intensely private affair with sufferers hesitant to talk about their thoughts and feelings. Others feel they have to be strong in the face of adversity and associate seeking help as a kind of weakness. A close friend who recovered from breast cancer described experiencing terrible survivors' guilt; constantly questioning why she survived, and others did not.
Cancer patients with good social support, a strong family network and a trustworthy relationship with their doctors may have a lower risk of traumatic stress. Health care providers need to understand the importance of providing clear information about the treatments on offer including complementary therapies that can help relieve anxiety.
Seek help and guidance from mental health professions
Cancer survivors and their families need to look to the long term and seek psychological help should it be required. I’m no doctor and hesitate to recommend treatment but in my case, cognitive therapy was a game-changer. I learned to understand my symptoms, became aware of destructive thinking patterns, and was shown ways to cope and destress.
Cancer messes with your body and it messes with your mind. You’ve already sought help from oncologists, don’t be too proud to seek help from psychologists if you need it.
Have you lost a loved one to prostate cancer? (select all that apply)