Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Cancer

Most people associate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with soldiers returning from war who struggle with adjustment to civilian life back home. While that is the population that led to the creation of this diagnosis, it has expanded to include survivors of other traumas, including natural disasters and cancer. Most people who go through a cancer journey, in themselves or someone they love, are able to adjust to life after cancer without experiencing PTSD. But they may feel similar symptoms and emotional issues that can impair their ability to fully enjoy life. The Gathering Place (TGP) exists so that anyone, with any type of cancer experience can find relief and comfort through a range of programs and services, all at no charge.

In November, Joel Marcus, PsyD, Taussig Cancer Center and Isabel Schuermeyer, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Psychology, both at the Cleveland Clinic, will be speaking at TGP on PTSD. Dr. Marcus and Dr. Schuermeyer work with patients who are trying to cope with the impact of a cancer diagnosis. Dr. Schuermeyer states, “One of the most important things to do is acknowledge your fears and anxiety. There is no need to hide or ‘protect’ your loved ones when help is out there.” Like hospitals all over the country, the Cleveland Clinic is working to reduce the stigma of asking for help by housing psychologists and psychiatrists in the cancer center. Dr. Schuermeyer noted that fear might cause a patient to delay seeking help for signs and symptoms that could possibly indicate the cancer has returned. She indicated that many of the chemotherapies being used today can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause changes to our biochemistry. People who have always been able to cope in the past, may find themselves feeling depressed or worried after cancer and not know that the treatment itself may be causing some of their struggles.

Another local expert on PTSD, Belleruth Naparstek, is also coming to speak at TGP this quarter. Her topic is Guided Imagery: Latest Updates and Techniques, but she has published a book and a CD to help those suffering from PTSD. In her book, she tells the story of a woman who received a “surprise blessing” through surviving a trauma like cancer. The woman “was no longer worried about the everyday concerns and irritations that used to occupy her mind. She was instead flooded by the joy of being alive.”

There are many activities that can help reduce the normal fears and expected anxieties of cancer treatment and its long term side effects. Whether it is yoga or tai chi, massage or reiki, art therapy or support groups, choosing to take care of yourself is important in a world where we feel we have so little control.

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