By Lauren Bronstein, LCSW
Trauma is defined as an emotional response to any difficult life event, such as exposure to threatened or actual death, and it can result in shock and denial in the short-term and emotional distress, depression, anger, distorted thought patterns, relationship conflict, and physical symptoms in the long-term.
A cancer diagnosis and treatment can constitute a trauma for many people. Knowing about the ways in which trauma affects us can help loved ones deliver better care to those undergoing cancer treatments.
Effects of Trauma
For many, receiving the news of a cancer diagnosis can be a shock and result in feeling stress, shame, and anger. It may take weeks or months for the newly diagnosed patient to fully integrate their cancer diagnosis into their sense of self, and this transition period can be a difficult time for them and their loved ones. This experience may look different for each individual. Factors such as location of the cancer, the value or importance of the cancer site to the patient, and how much the diagnosis affects their physical and cognitive functioning will impact how the person perceives and experiences this new change.
In the early stages, many people will experience relationship changes and conflicts, dependency issues, work or school disruptions, and an altered sense of self and body image. Cancer treatments that require surgery or the removal of a body part can increase body image disturbances and result in long-term consequences. Cancers that affect the reproductive organs can similarly cause disruptions in how a person identifies with his or her gender and self-perception. If fertility and intimacy are affected, additional issues related to parenthood, self-worth, and life trajectory can complicate the treatment process.
In the long-term, the loss of autonomy, independence, or cognitive functioning can have profound and lasting effects on cancer patients and their loved ones. A cancer diagnosis and treatment can often cause physical changes, including pain, discomfort, and overall weakness and fatigue. Cognitive impairments may be caused by chemotherapy (also known as “chemo brain”), the location of the cancer, or metastasis to the brain or spinal cord.
Take, for example, Linda*, a woman in her mid-50s diagnosed with breast cancer who has a history of trauma and neglect. As a child, she was often sick and in the hospital with various types of infections and colds. Her parents were not emotionally equipped to soothe young Linda or themselves, and they were often anxious, angry, and made Linda feel as though she were defective and weak. Now, her diagnosis is bringing up many of those childhood fears and vulnerabilities. Physically, her chest tightens and her shoulders slouch forward, similar to how she presented when being scolded by her parents as a child. She experiences intense anxiety around undergoing treatments and fears her mortality, even though she has a treatable cancer.
Fortunately, Linda was able to work with a therapist who specialized in oncology, trauma, and somatic processing. This therapist was able to support Linda through her cancer journey to heal past traumas emotionally and physically and help to reduce the stress and anxiety she faced during her cancer treatments.
Even after treatment is completed, patients with cancer and their loved ones may have to adjust to a “new normal” or a new way of life to accommodate the changes caused by treatment. The right therapist can help by providing patients and caregivers with the tools they need to restore their functioning as much as possible and facilitate adjustment to their new circumstances.
It’s important for caregivers to be aware of the short- and long-term effects a cancer diagnosis can have on a person’s emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. Research shows that trauma produces physiological changes in the brain, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system and an increase in stress hormone secretion. This is why traumatized individuals often become hyper-vigilant or preoccupied with the possibility of a new threat. Physical touch can be a trigger for traumatized patients, and it’s important for caregivers to be mindful of how touch can impact these individuals.
Therapy can help caregivers who are feeling overhwlemed, burdened, and burned-out by providing a space that is just for them to express their emotions and provide education about how to best support the patient. It’s important to work with a therapist who has experience in oncology and caregiving so they can help loved ones feel more involved and provide them with some direction about how to be supportive. The right therapist can help everyone involved to feel less alone and build a meaningful support network to help them through this difficult journey.
In addition to the emotional aspects of treatment, there are practical resources available that can assist patients and their loved ones with home care, counseling, support groups, financial and co-pay assistance, cleaning, meal delivery, medical equipment, etc. Having a strong support system in place, not just for the cancer patient but also for their caregivers, will help everyone cope more effectively with the treatment regime and the physical and emotional changes taking place. The right therapist will not only be able to support their clients emotionally but also practically.
If you or a loved one are struggling with a cancer diagnosis, Lauren Bronstein Therapy has openings and is available to provide support. Lauren Bronstein Therapy specializes in people diagnosed with any stage or type of cancer, caregivers and loved ones, and the bereaved. Reach out for an initial consultation today at LaurenBronsteinTherapy@gmail.com.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). 2013. Arlington, VA: Author.
Messner C, Kornhauser C, Canosa R. The biopsychosocial implication of the site of the cancer, In Christ, G., Messner, C., & Behar, L. eds. Handbook of Oncology Social Work: Psychosocial Care of People with Cancer. 2015. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Van Der Kolk B. The body keeps the score. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
*Name changed to protect client’s confidentiality.