What Is PTSD And How Does It Affect Breast Cancer Survivors?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Breast Cancer

Dr. Robin Dilley, author of In A Moment’s Notice: A Psychologist’s Journey with Breast Cancer and licensed psychologist

Prior to my personal diagnosis with breast cancer, I was unaware that I had PTSD. I never had to examine my belief that everyone who gets cancer dies of cancer because that belief seemed normal to me. But in 1999 when I was diagnosed with Stage II estrogen positive breast cancer that belief was seriously in my way. This is what I learned about myself. Prior to the age of five I had a black nanny, Matt, that took care of me when my blue-collar hard working parents were working. I remember her sweet scent to this day. Before I could spend most of my hours at school, Matt had to leave me to take care of her sister who was dying from shhhh, “cancer.” Of course at the age of five I did not know this because the word cancer was not spoken nor at five could I have comprehended what it meant. I do know that Matt was replaced with skinny, old, white woman who did not smile, grumbled under her breath and whom I thought was mean. Later, when I was old enough to inquire why Matt left, I was told she had to go to take care of her sister who had cancer. Somewhere in that process the synapse in my brain put together that cancer causes people to leave your life permanently. Thus my fear of cancer killing people was written deep within my personal script.

It took some interpersonal work as to how I began to believe that people with cancer leave you but I finally connected the dots and it became crystal clear. Insight in and of itself does not change belief systems or the symptoms of PTSD that surround the beliefs. In order for me to get a new perspective I had to grieve Matt and say good-by to her sweet scent and plump cheeks. Then space inside of me opened up and I began to put adult emotions, feelings, and beliefs with this big C word, “cancer.”

PTSD, Post-traumatic stress disorder is a DSM V diagnosis in the mental health world. You have probably heard of it in relationship to war veterans returning home. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that causes the brain to fire in irrational and obsessive patterns after someone has gone though an extreme emotional trauma that involves a threat to his/her life or perceived threat of danger. Cancer, whether it is yours or someone who is close to you sends off alarms into your central nervous system bringing in hyper-arousal and says, “threat is on board.” Cancer and the very threat of cancer create the war like environment for PTSD.

Thus what can you do to cope with this threat in healthy ways to in order to respond to real or perceived threat of cancer in order to manage PTSD symptoms.

First, give yourself a break and acknowledge the truth. Cancer is scary and creates rivers and avenues of fear within. Don’t try not to be afraid. Being brave is not the same as not being afraid. Being brave means that you know and understand the risks involved and respond to each risk with positive action, regardless of your level of fear.

Second, get enough rest. PTSD symptoms are intrusive showing up in nightmares, disruptive sleep, and early morning dread. Discover which tools are going to help you rest. If you need a night -light because the dark is all of sudden too scary buy a soft light positive action night- light. One that makes your face smile when you see its glow in your dark room. Experiment with some night- time organic herbal teas, such as chamomile to see if tea will assist you to sleep. Melatonin can be tried as well. If you are in treatment and it is too uncomfortable to sleep lying down, then sleep in a recliner chair or propped up with a bouquet of pillows. Rest is your friend. When you worry, the very biology of worry breaks down your cells. If you are in chemo, radiation or both, then your healthy cells are getting beat up, so rest as much as you can.

Third, have an assortment of music at your fingertips. One day you might really want to hear angry heavy metal music blaring through your house because that might be reflecting your inner state and pleasant massage music is just too annoying when you are agitate. Let music reflect outwardly you inner state.

You can also inexpensively decorate or redecorate your environment. Make it bright, colorful and full of art that makes you smile. You may want to create a wall of 8X11 pieces of paper with one word on each piece of paper, such as hope, fight, care, do, and be. Use colors that make you smile. If something in your environment makes you growl or frown each time you see it, toss it immediately. Even if it is that ugly putrid green vase your mother gave you. Don’t keep stuff around you that you have to look at just because you feel like you should.

Other things that you can add to your environment to manage your PTSD symptoms are journaling your feelings, aromatherapy, funny movies, and good friends. Go to support groups, seek counsel from a professional who works with cancer patients and read to educate and inform your self. It is important that you come to this cancer well prepared and ready. Knowledge is power. Do not be afraid to learn about just exactly what is going on with you. Of course, it will be scary but the knowledge will help you make the best-informed decisions about your treatment and your life style.

Last, remember that you are priceless and valuable. Nothing you did caused this to happen to you. You are not bad. One day there will be a blog about shame and life threatening illness, but for today comfort and manage those PTSD symptoms.

Dr. Robin Dilley

Dr. Robin B. Dilley, author of In A Moment’s Notice: A Psychologist’s Journey with Breast Cancer is a licensed psychologist in the State of Arizona. Her eclectic practice allows her to cross diagnostic barriers and meet clients in their need assisting them to respond to life in healthy and empowering ways rather than react to life’s circumstances.

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  1. Reblogged this on Gabby Mottershead and commented:
    Love this post x


  2. So good to see such responses from AnnBert and Robin here. I feel it won’t be too long before the ‘old’ way of dealing with ‘illnesses’ is changed significantly.
    We need more funds in pathology and mind healers (neuron changers!) to deal with the causes, as opposed to monies for chemicals to deal with the symptoms – a massive money making venture for the elite few.
    I don’t agree with the words ‘Breast Cancer Survivor’. They hold one in a state of ‘being’.
    Cells change according to their environment, this is epigeneitcs. Accept the present symptoms, and look to the cause. Just my understanding 🙂
    Oh yes, and I have ‘survived’ cervical, skin (melanoma stage II) and breast cancer and am now going through changing a fourth one! A squamous tumor on my tongue. And successfully so!
    Think well, live well, be well.
    This is just my understanding 🙂


    • Kit, thanks for your comments. What do you call yourself if bit a survivor ? I don t like it either nor warrior


      • Warrior means a fighter 🙂 I fight nothing. Accept everything and space then occurs for positive action to come about, with excellent results.
        Using the terms of ‘warrior’ or ‘survivor’ indicate a slight egoic tendency to say ‘Look what I’ve achieved!’ 🙂 It holds on to a negative term in exchange for an accolade – just my thoughts 🙂
        I would say that not naming or claiming a medical term for symptoms is more freedom, and allows us to look deeper for the actual causes, preventing symptoms from then occurring.
        Medicine is simply a poison that is delivered in a low dosage to adjust symptoms. These often have side effects, for which an additional poison is then added as a further adjustment.
        In chemotherapy, (of which I refused) alongside the derivative of mustard gas, they also sometimes use bicarbonate of soda to alleviate some results of the chemo. Why? Ahhh! Therein lies my understanding of the connection of CANdida and CANcer, one that is also understood by Dr Tullio Simoncini. His work is brilliant and got me searching and doing research into this area now. It explained to me beautifully as to why I suffered for 40+ years with Crohn’s disease (and now no more since 2000), as well as the 3 previous cancers and this present one. Although I don’t like to use the word ‘cancer’ anymore 🙂 It’s just cells that are responding to an environment. I need to find out what that environment is and then change it. And so I have 🙂
        Love this universe 🙂


  3. Cancer is presented by Dilley as a “threat is on board.” That view reflects the view on cancer promoted by the medical orthodoxy as a foreign alien thing that’s needs eradicating immediately. The view has no sound relevance to biology. But it does support the general perspective of disease held on by the cancer industry: mechanistic reductionism. It misses the coherence and systemic organization of the organism. All the orthodox cancer treatments are based on this dogma. The dogma also prevents the proper acknowledgment of the severe harms caused by these interventions, including from the screening tests such as mammography (see “The Mammogram Myth” by Rolf Hefti). The profound general failure of the war on cancer validates the errors of the dogma.


    • Ann, what you said is very true and certainly where we want to move toward in a perfect world. However, fear is very real and the stories each person has collected along his/her journey create an environment of panic in most people who have no idea of any other model than the medical model. The suggestions for coping with the fear are ideas to help cancer patients learn to self sooth. There will be a follow up blog to this in the future and I invite open dialogue around it. For me it is a “both-and” and I will be writing about the Buddhist practice of Chod as a way to approach the cancer.


  4. Yes, I agree with you understanding that PTSD – a name for feelings held about an experience, can definitely create the conditions for Breast Cancer. Any cancer actually.
    But there is more to it than you have written here 🙂


  5. A very nice post, Rika



  1. […] “Will it come back?” has nothing useful to offer me. I believe the question is part of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that a cancer survivor lives with. By staying with the question until it abates I am allowing my brain to create new pathways, […]


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