Traumatic Illness: The Unlikely Relationship Between Cancer and PTSD

Traumatic Illness: The Unlikely Relationship Between Cancer and PTSD

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) manifests as a result of experiencing traumatic events (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). It can be triggered through exposure to life or death situations, violent events such as assault, or witnessing the death of someone close to you. The faces of PTSD that include victims of abuse, rape survivors, or war veterans. However, one face that is gaining more traction is those who have developed cancer.

A recent study done by the National University of Malaysia focused on 469 adults who had been diagnosed with different types of cancer. They were interviewed 6 months (and 4 years later) following their cancer diagnosis. The study discovered that approximately 20% of their participants had developed PTSD during their 6-month visit, even after successful treatment of their cancer. For some, their PTSD symptoms worsen. In the 4-year follow-up, 6% of participants were reported to demonstrate signs of PTSD. When attempting to reason for this relationship, researcher Caryn Mei Hsien Chen said, “Many cancer patients believe they need to adopt a ‘warrior mentality,’ and remain positive and optimistic from diagnosis through treatment to stand a better chance of beating their cancer. To these patients, seeking help for the emotional issues they face is akin to admitting weakness (Cohut, 2017).”

PTSD can manifest in many ways for those with cancer. This can include hesitation or refusal to appear in follow-up appointments out of fear that it will trigger stressful memories. Some others will not seek mental help during their treatment because they do not want to appear weak (Kelly, 2017). The heightened stress can also lead to body aches, pain, and sickness. The increase in physical pain that results from their stress can induce fears that their cancer will return. However, counseling and support can change outcomes for any physical or mental illness. In the same study, it was found that breast cancer patients were 3.7 times less likely to have developed PTSD six months after diagnosis than patients with other types of cancers. As part of the treatment for their breast cancer, patients received support and counseling during the first year following their diagnosis.

We tend to forget about the mental stress that is often associated with physical illness, and instead focus on the physical element. It is important to remember that physical and mental illnesses go hand in hand—they affect one another. As with any illness, help, and support are essential and we have to remind ourselves of the impact that diseases, such as cancer, can have on one’s mental health.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Cohut, M. (2017, November 20). Many grapple with PTSD after a cancer diagnosis.

Kelly, L. (2017, November 22). Many cancer survivors living with PTSD: Study. Retrieved November 26, 2017, from udy/

Allison Chan

My interest in the social sciences emerged during high school when I began taking college level classes that introduced me to research writing. I felt that the opportunity helped me become more conscious of the information I would take in during my daily life. Through being a part of the Humanology Project, I hope to bring more awareness towards mental illnesses. Although I am undecided, I have developed an interest in sociology. My courses have taught me the importance of looking at issues from a different and more larger perspective. I feel that developing this perspective is a part of ending stigma and misconceptions about mental illness. During my free time I like to binge watch Everybody Loves Raymond, volunteer, and enjoy dramatic cooking shows

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