As many as one third of people who experience an extremely upsetting event, including cancer, develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The event alone does not explain why some people get PTSD and others don't. Although there is no clear answer as to which cancer survivors are at increased risk of developing PTSD, certain mental, physical, or social factors may make some people more likely to experience it.
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Mental factors may affect the development of PTSD in some patients:
Previous psychological problems.
High level of general stress.
Genetic factors and biological factors (such as a hormone disorder) that affect memory and learning.
The amount of social support available.
Threat to life and body.
Having PTSD before being diagnosed with cancer.
The use of avoidance to cope with stress.
Certain factors may decrease a person's chance of developing PTSD. These include increased social support, accurate information about the stage of the cancer, and a satisfactory relationship with the medical staff.
How PTSD may develop
PTSD symptoms develop by both conditioning and learning. Conditioning explains the fear responses caused by certain triggers that were first associated with the upsetting event. Neutral triggers (such as smells, sounds, and sights) that occurred at the same time as upsetting triggers (such as chemotherapy or painful treatments) later cause anxiety, stress, and fear even when they occur alone, after the trauma has ended. Once established, PTSD symptoms are continued through learning. The patient learns that avoiding the triggers prevents unpleasant feelings and thoughts, so coping by avoidance continues.
Although conditioning and learning are part of the process, many factors may explain why one person develops PTSD and another does not.
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This information is produced and provided by the National
Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National
Institute via the Internet web site at http://
.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute
May 28, 2015
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor.
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