After Initial Despair, Breast Cancer Patients Often Experience Post-Traumatic Growth

Posted on June 12th, 2015
Posted in PTSD

Recent findings from a team of Australian researchers indicate that women with breast cancer experience a spike in their PTSD risks after diagnosis but often experience an improvement in mental health after they receive cancer treatment.

Exposure to any form of life-threatening illness can trigger the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a study review published in early 2015 in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, researchers from three Australian institutions assessed the mental health impact of a breast cancer diagnosis in women. These researchers found that women with breast cancer often develop symptoms of PTSD in the aftermath of a diagnosis, but frequently experience a positive rebound effect called post-traumatic growth when they get used to their situation and receive effective treatment for their cancer.

Women, Breast Cancer and PTSD

Breast cancer is the shared name for a range of cancerous tumors that can appear in various portions of a woman’s (or man’s) breast. Over 40,000 of the 390,000-plus American women who develop one of these conditions will die in the average year. Roughly 3 percent of all women in the U.S. have a breast cancer-related cause of death, the American Cancer Society reports, and lung cancer is the only cancerous condition that kills more women than breast cancer. Still, almost 3 million breast cancer survivors are alive today across the country.

For a variety of reasons, American women have a lifetime rate of post-traumatic stress disorder exposure that’s more than 100 percent higher than the rate found among men. Part of this increased risk is associated with a heightened level of exposure to sexual assault (including rape), which ranks along with physical assault and combat exposure as one of the most likely PTSD sources. Women’s elevated risks may also stem from a gender-specific tendency to feel guilty for the circumstances that lead to trauma exposure. Other notable factors that increase women’s odds of developing the disorder include a pre-existing history of mental health issues, poorly developed support networks and a strongly negative short-term response to trauma exposure. (Doctors don’t diagnose PTSD until at least a month after a traumatic event/situation.)

Post-Traumatic Growth

Psychologists and other mental health professionals use the term post-traumatic growth to describe beneficial mental/emotional changes associated with surviving a highly traumatic situation or event. Acknowledged components of this positive growth include improved relationships with others, a belief in expanding personal possibilities, increased spiritual or religious commitment, a generally more appreciative life outlook and an improved sense of toughness or durability. People who experience post-traumatic growth also often experience damaging changes in mental health in the aftermath of trauma exposure. In addition, not all trauma survivors experience beneficial changes in their psychological outlooks.

Women’s Reactions to Breast Cancer

In the study review, researchers from Australia’s Charles Darwin University, Alan Walker Cancer Care Centre and Menzies School of Health Research used data gathered from more than a dozen previous studies to assess the PTSD risks associated with breast cancer in women. These researchers also analyzed five other studies that looked at PTSD and post-traumatic growth in women with breast cancer, as well as 11 prior study reviews on breast cancer-related PTSD and/or post-traumatic growth. The vast majority of the studies and study reviews under consideration were conducted in the 21st century.

The researchers concluded that roughly four out of five women diagnosed with breast cancer have a clearly stressful reaction to that diagnosis. Approximately 41 percent of all women with a breast cancer diagnosis experience a highly distressing reaction that boosts their chances of experiencing diagnosable mental health issues. Identified rates of PTSD in women with breast cancer vary from a low of 3 percent to a high of 19 percent. Generally speaking, PTSD risks are greatest near the time of diagnosis and include factors such as the seriousness of the discovered breast cancer, the presence or absence of any associated pain, the outlook for recovery and the type of treatment plan outlined by a doctor.

The researchers found that up to 87 percent of all women who survive breast cancer experience some degree of post-traumatic growth. Factors that increase the likelihood of positive growth include being relatively young, relying on religious or spiritual values during treatment and recovery, living for extended amounts of time after receiving a cancer diagnosis and having a strong support network.

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