Being diagnosed with cancer affects a patient not just physiologically but also psychologically, and has a deep impact on the emotional status of the patient and his family for an extended period of time. And while there are treatments for the physiological symptoms of the patient, dealing with the psychological trauma associated with cancer is another story altogether. Cancer is an experience of repeated traumas and for undetermined length, unlike an accident. The patient may experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms anytime from diagnosis through completion of treatment and cancer recurrence.
As is seen in the case of our Indian skipper Yuvraj Singh how the misdiagnosis and then the reconfirmation of the cancer must have been a series of highs and lows. Especially for a sportsperson who works under tremendous pressure to be fit and putting out an outstanding performance, trauma such as this can be doubly difficult psychologically rather than physically. Any ones guess would be whether he will be able to return to the stadium fit enough to play his best innings. Here is a glimpse of what he might be undergoing…
Although, the end of treatment is often marked with a sense of relief, accomplishment, and even joy in having gotten through a difficult experience. Yet for many cancer survivors, it is also a stressful time filled with new routines to learn, as well as mixed feelings about what they’ve just gone through. Many people find themselves unsure of how to move forward, wondering, “Now what?” Therefore, effects of PTSD are long-lasting and serious. It does not end with the end of the treatment. It may affect the patient’s ability to have a normal lifestyle and may interfere with personal relationships, education, and employment even after the patient is ‘cured’. Because avoiding places and persons associated with cancer is part of PTSD, the syndrome may prevent the patient from seeking medical treatment or psychotherapy. It is therefore important that cancer survivors and their family receive information about the possible psychological effects of their cancer experience and early treatment of symptoms of PTSD.
Also, as a patient, they may have been so busy learning about their diagnosis, working with the medical team, and going through treatment that they didn’t fully feel the emotional impact of the diagnosis until after end of the treatment. It’s common for many cancer survivors to have a variety of complex and often conflicting feelings about their diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. It is normal to feel relieved that treatment is over, yet angry or sad about having gone through such a serious illness. Or, they may feel guilty about surviving a diagnosis that other people do not. The patient may also feel anxious and fearful about the cancer coming back, or worried that the treatment didn’t work. It is normal, too, to feel confused about what they’ve been through and to be concerned about the future. Family and friends can provide much comfort and support during this time. However, survivors often feel a bit isolated from loved ones and the world around them. Loved ones usually mean well, but they might not be fully aware of all the emotional challenges that can arise for you after overwhelming, interfering with your day-to-day activities and even your health.
Another concern faced by many cancer survivors is the realization that life after their diagnosis and treatment never really goes back to what it was before cancer. Many survivors find they are not able to return to their old “normal” life but must adapt to a “new normal.” Understanding what your new normal is can take time. This process may involve: Reflecting on what you’ve been through. Identifying changes you might want to make in your life. Recognizing what you’ve learned and what’s changed about yourself. Re-evaluating personal relationships or professional goals.
Discovering new ways of finding meaning and fulfillment.
In India, we find that patients usually resort to prayer, fasting, performing ceremonies in order to deal with their illness as against proactively seeking information from the doctor, reading up on the net and medical journals, exercising, eating healthy, meditating or seeking professional help to deal with their emotions. (Stress and Coping amongst infertile women Research conducted by Dimple Shah for Mumbai University, 1994.). Although these actions mimic active coping mechanisms, in essence it is passive coping mechanisms resigning pessimistically and blaming fate for their misfortune and instilling deep fear and helplessness, therefore unable to relieve the person of stress. Patients and their family needs to be informed of these inactive and potentially stress inducing coping mechanisms and be guided to utilize proactive coping mechanisms mentioned above from the beginning.
Therapies used to treat PTSD are those used for other trauma victims. Treatment may involve more than one type of therapy. Feelings of sorrow, grief, hopelessness; coupled with mood swings, fear of losing life, leaving behind loved ones and anxiety and depression are very common amongst patients fighting against cancer. Serious psychosocial distress was seen 40% more among cancer survivors of 5 years or more than in those who have never had cancer. About 10% develop major depressive disorder; others experience an adjustment disorder. In young adult cancer survivors, one small study found that 20% of participants met the full clinical diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 45% to 95% displayed at least one symptom of PTSD. Survivors of adult cancer are at an increased risk of suicidal ideology (having thoughts about suicide), while as many as 13% of childhood cancer survivors experience suicidal ideology.
The prognosis of cancer it is proven scientifically that an emotionally stable person reacts better to the medication and treatment modalities of cancer. This is where a person’s inner strength becomes paramount. Yet it is expected that the person who has been diagnosed with cancer will initially at least crumble under the stress of the trauma. Here the key is, the support system that has a tremendous impact to help the patient bounce back to fighting cancer is the family and friends. Psychotherapy from the time of diagnosis to surgery and post treatment is crucial in providing this supporting network. When one member of a family has cancer, the whole family is affected and, in fact, psychotherapists consider these family members to be “secondary patients.” Cancer affects an entire family, not only because there are genetic links to cancer and cancer risk, but because when one member of a family has cancer the whole family must deal with the illness.
The therapist focuses on solving problems, teaching coping skills, and providing a supportive setting for the patient. Some patients are helped by methods that teach them to change their behaviors by changing their thinking patterns. Some of these methods include helping the patient understand symptoms, teaching coping and stress management skills (such as relaxation training), teaching the patient to reward upsetting thoughts, and helping the patient become less sensitive to upsetting triggers. Therapist may also use group work and introspective art therapy help the patient express their emotions. Sometimes having someone paying attention to the painful emotions itself is healing and patients show tremendous resilience once they are able to confide in someone who can demonstrate strength to listen to their pain, which family members are unable to do so at that point of time.
Most importantly cancer trauma, like other life threatening traumas bring back the past and often unconscious hurts and losses and therefore the psychological effect appears long lasting and compounded. Often people close to the patient find the person overreacting and are unable to understand where they are coming from. They feel hurt, angry and confused. But if you make an effort to understand that these emotions of hurt, anger and confusion that you are experiencing are not really incident related or even yours; that they belong to the person who is suffering from cancer you will be better able to deal with both the patient and the emotions thrown into you. Doing this is not as easy as it sounds and this is also where the psychotherapists step in. Psychotherapists help the family to experience and deal with these emotions that are thrown into them and also help them make better response choices. Therefore the psychological treatment on which the prognosis of cancer depends is strengthened using multifaceted psychotherapy approaches. It is beneficial to start with these sessions from the time of diagnosis and continue till post treatment; as although we expect psychological reactions to emerge within the first three months of diagnosis, there is no fixed rule and if not brought into the forefront of therapy may remain suppressed and resurface later on after many years, often with unconceivable strength.
Follow up article on Yuvraj singhs recovery from cancer