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Pediatric Supportive Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Psychological Adjustment

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Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Symptoms

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that occurs after serious physical injury or severe mental or emotional distress.

Being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and receiving treatment for it is often traumatic. This trauma may cause a group of symptoms called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined as having certain symptoms following a stressful event that involved death or the threat of death, serious injury, or a threat to oneself or others.

People who have survived very stressful situations, such as military combat or natural disasters, may also have PTSD. PTSD can affect cancer survivors in the following ways:

  • Reliving the time they were diagnosed and treated for cancer, in nightmares or flashbacks, and thinking about it all the time.
  • Avoiding places, events, and people that remind them of the cancer experience.
  • Being constantly overexcited, fearful, irritable, or unable to sleep, or having trouble concentrating.

Family problems, little or no social support from family or friends, and stress not related to the cancer may increase the chances of having PTSD.

Because avoiding places and persons connected to the cancer is part of PTSD, survivors with PTSD may not get the medical treatment they need.

Childhood cancer survivors who are diagnosed with PTSD are more likely to have depression and to have difficulty with common aspects of young adulthood, such as doing well in school, taking part in social activities, and reaching career goals.

Children and teens with cancer, as well as parents and siblings, may be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In children and teens with cancer, symptoms of PTSD may occur during treatment or after treatment has ended. Those who feel very uncertain about their disease and future may be more likely to have PTSD symptoms. Parents and siblings (brothers and sisters) of childhood cancer survivors are also at high risk for PTSD.

It is important that cancer survivors and their families receive information about the possible psychological effects of their cancer experience and about early treatment of symptoms of PTSD.

Follow-up cancer care may be given by the cancer treatment doctor or the main provider, such as the family doctor. It is important that regular mental health check-ups be part of this follow-up care. A patient who shows signs of PTSD or other mental health problems during follow-up care may be referred to a therapist or other mental health specialist. Many survivors get help from therapists who are experts in helping people who are recovering from cancer.

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WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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