Iris Mini: What is Post-Traumatic Stress?

Trauma and How it Affects People Living with Cancer

A cancer diagnosis and the beginning of treatment can be traumatic for some individuals. Trauma results from an experience or event that feels life threatening and which often makes you feel powerless. An experience is traumatic when it overwhelms your mind, body, and spirit in a way that feels uncontrollable and when we do not have the emotional resources to process what is happening. Most people experience some type of trauma at some point in their lives – sometimes from a medical diagnosis and the resulting care. Our bodies and our minds have different ways of processing trauma.

Some people who go through cancer develop post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There are many factors that contribute to people developing these mental health syndromes. Every person processes trauma differently and each has different emotional, social, financial, mental health, and medical support resources available to them.

Factors That Can Increase the Chance of Experiencing PTSS/PTSD

  • Previous experiences of trauma

  • High levels of stress in other areas of life

  • Insufficient amount of available social support

  • Existence of safety threats in their life

  • Having PTSD or other diagnosed mental health conditions before being diagnosed with cancer

  • Coping styles that include avoiding processing emotions or acknowledging and facing difficulties in life

Symptoms of PTSS/PTSD

  • Being startled easily

  • Feeling like you must constantly monitor the environment around you

  • Memories, dreams, and/or flashbacks that come and go uncontrollably, such as:

    • Recurring dreams about the day you were diagnosed with cancer and how scared you felt 

    • Being in the middle of washing dishes or another task and flashing back through images of what was happening after your surgery 

  • Avoiding places or things related to the trauma, such as:

    • Feeling a sense of dread when you go to the hospital or clinic and avoiding going there even when you need care

  • Negative changes in your thoughts and mood, such as:

    • Feeling extreme guilt, numbed out, detached from reality, not wanting to talk or interact with others, and being more irritable or annoyed than normal 

The number of symptoms and the length of time a person experiences them determines the diagnosis of either PTSS or PTSD.

How to Get Help

Treating trauma requires specialized care focused on the symptoms of PTSS and PTSD. Contact your Iris mental health therapist to discuss your symptoms or to receive a referral to a community-based therapist who specializes in treating trauma.

Cancer Related PTSD (National Cancer Institute)

PTSD and Cancer (

Leano A, Korman MB, Goldberg L, Ellis J. Are we missing PTSD in our patients with cancer? Part I. Can Oncol Nurs J. 2019;29(2):141-146. Published 2019 Apr 1.