Many Women Newly Diagnosed With Breast Cancer Have PTSD Symptoms

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can be brought on by a traumatic event. PTSD can happen after a life-threatening situation, such as a breast cancer diagnosis or cancer recurrence. PTSD can affect your ability to cope with life’s daily chores and inconveniences and make it difficult to function.

A study has found that about 23% of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer had PTSD symptoms. The research was published online on March 1, 2013 by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Read the abstract of “Racial Disparities in Posttraumatic Stress After Diagnosis of Localized Breast Cancer: The BQUAL Study.”

The researchers analyzed survey results from 1,139 women who were part of the Breast Cancer Quality of Care Study (BQUAL). All the women were diagnosed with stage I, II, or III breast cancer between 2006 and 2010 and were older than 20.

Each woman in the study completed three phone interviews answering questions about stress and other quality of life issues. The first interview was done 2 to 3 months after diagnosis, the second interview was done 4 months after diagnosis, and the third interview was done 6 months after diagnosis.

PTSD symptoms were measured using the Impact of Event Scale, a standard scale used by doctors to evaluate mental and psychological disorders.

The researchers found:

  • 23% of the women had PTSD symptoms 2 to 3 months after diagnosis
  • 16.5% of the women had PTSD symptoms 4 months after diagnosis
  • 12.6% of the women had PTSD symptoms 6 months after diagnosis
  • 12.1% of the women had what the researchers called persistent PTSD, meaning they had symptoms at two consecutive interviews

Women who were younger than 50 when they were diagnosed were more likely to have PTSD symptoms than women who were older than 50 when diagnosed. Black and Asian women were more likely to have PTSD symptoms than white women.

While the results of this study are troubling, there is some good news. The PTSD symptoms did ease over time: the number of women with PTSD dropped about 50% from the first interview to the third. Also, this study may help raise awareness that women newly diagnosed with breast cancer are at risk for PTSD. Identifying women who develop PTSD soon after a breast cancer diagnosis would likely help them get the support and treatment they need.

If you’ve been newly diagnosed with breast cancer, you may feel like your emotions are on a rollercoaster, swooping from scared to stressed to worried to angry all in a few minutes' time. So what separates “normal” stress from PTSD? PTSD symptoms last longer than a month and severely affect your daily life. Symptoms include:

  • nightmares or flashbacks about the cancer experience
  • continuously focusing on the cancer experience
  • extreme irritableness
  • feeling emotionally numb
  • loss of appetite
  • self-destructive behavior (alcohol or drug abuse, for example)
  • being startled or frightening easily
  • hallucinations
  • memory problems
  • concentration problems

To make sure you get the help you need, talk to your doctor right away if you’re having PTSD symptoms. PTSD treatment can include medicines, such as antidepressants, and therapy to help you learn ways to cope with situations that may trigger traumatic stress.

For more information on PTSD symptoms and tips to manage PTSD brought on by a breast cancer diagnosis, visit the Breastcancer.org PTSD page.

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