After beating breast cancer, Lauren Rockwell still couldn’t let her guard down. The reason—post-traumatic stress disorder. Here, how she overcame the lingering fear and anxiety and reclaimed her life.
When Lauren Rockwell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 in her 40s, “I did not want to know what stage my disease was,” says the Raleigh, NC, mother of two. “I wouldn’t listen when my doctor tried to tell me my survival statistics.” For Lauren, the anxiety of not knowing was far less than the anxiety of knowing the odds and feeling like she had to beat them.
But even when she had beat the odds, after months of chemo, a lumpectomy and radiation, the thought that the cancer would come back was constantly on her mind. “If I found a lump on my thigh, I’d think cancer, instead of cellulite,” she laughs. Eventually Lauren, who, ironically, is a psychologist specializing in grief and trauma patients, recognized she was experiencing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“At first I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “You think of PTSD as something that affects people who go through a great trauma. And then you realize, cancer is a great trauma.”
In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders introduced malignant disease in its definition of PTSD back in 1994. Today, data are mounting that cancer patients—and in some cases even their caregivers—also suffer the symptoms of PTSD.
“Anyone who’s had a life-threatening experience, including a cancer diagnosis, can be a victim,” says Alfred I. Neugut, MD, PhD, an oncologist and a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons. A research team led by Dr. Neugut recently surveyed 1,139 breast cancer patients in the six months following diagnosis and found that nearly one in four met the criteria for PTSD.
The typical PTSD symptoms include difficulty sleeping or concentrating, loss of interest in activities and being “hyper-alert” (i.e., keyed up in anticipation of danger—in Lauren’s case, this meant seeing any sort of “lump” as another tumor).
Lauren eventually discussed her PTSD symptoms with her own therapist and started a blog to help her come to terms with her trauma. She also does cognitive behavioral therapy—which teaches patients to tune in to their feelings and work through emotions in real time—to help her deal with the condition.
“It took a lot of time to start to heal mentally, but knowing that it’s a real condition, and that it’s normal to experience, helps,” she says. “Each day gets better and better!”
Could you have cancer-related PTSD?
Talk to your cancer care team if one or more of these PTSD symptoms lasts a month or more.