Understanding PTSD in Cancer Patients: A Counsellor's Perspective


As we observe PTSD Awareness Month this June, it’s crucial to spotlight a group that often gets overlooked in PTSD discussions: cancer patients. 

While PTSD is commonly associated with military personnel and survivors of severe accidents or violence, it can also profoundly affect those undergoing cancer treatment. 

As a UK-based counsellor specialising in supporting patients and loved ones through their cancer journey, I have seen firsthand how the trauma of a cancer diagnosis and treatment can lead to PTSD.

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What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. 

Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. 

For cancer patients, the trauma can stem from the initial diagnosis, the gruelling treatment process, or the fear of recurrence.

The Link Between Cancer and PTSD

The cancer journey is often filled with emotional and physical challenges. 

The diagnosis itself can be a significant shock, leading to feelings of helplessness and fear. 

Treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are not only physically taxing but can also be emotionally scarring. 

The constant anxiety of monitoring for recurrence further compounds these stresses.

Research indicates that a significant number of cancer patients experience PTSD symptoms. 

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, by Chan et al. (2018) found that about one-third of cancer survivors reported PTSD symptoms six months after diagnosis, with some symptoms persisting for years.

Recognising PTSD in Cancer Patients

As counsellors, it’s crucial to recognise the signs of PTSD in cancer patients. These include:

  • Intrusive thoughts: Persistent, distressing thoughts about the cancer experience.
  • Avoidance: Avoiding anything that reminds them of their treatment or diagnosis.
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood: Feelings of hopelessness, emotional numbness, or detachment from loved ones.
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions: Being easily startled, having difficulty sleeping, or experiencing intense irritability or anger.

The Role of Counselling in Managing PTSD

Counselling plays a vital role in helping cancer patients throughout their treatment and manage PTSD. 

Here are some strategies that I practise that can be beneficial for patients:

  1. Creating a Safe Space: Establish a trusting and supportive environment where patients can openly discuss their fears and experiences.
  2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Help patients reframe negative thoughts and develop coping strategies.
  3. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Teach patients mindfulness exercises and relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety and improve emotional regulation.
  4. Trauma-Informed Care: Incorporate trauma-informed approaches to ensure that care is sensitive to the psychological impact of cancer.

Supporting Loved Ones

Family members and friends also play a crucial role in a cancer patient’s journey. 

Educating them about PTSD and its symptoms can help them provide better support. 

Encourage loved ones to:

  • Listen Actively: Sometimes, just being there to listen can be incredibly comforting.
  • Offer Practical Help: Assisting with daily tasks can alleviate some of the stress on the patient.
  • Encourage Professional Help: If they notice signs of PTSD, suggesting professional counselling can be a crucial step in the patient’s healing process.

As a counsellor, I offer the opportunity for family to sit in to the patients counselling sessions if deemed appropriate.

Alternatively, I can offer counselling to those whose loved ones are facing a cancer diagnosis. 


As we mark PTSD Awareness Month, let’s broaden our understanding of this condition to include cancer patients. 

By recognising the signs of PTSD and providing appropriate support and counselling, we can help cancer patients navigate their journey with greater resilience and hope. 

Healing is not just about curing the body but also about nurturing the mind and spirit.

If you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help. 

Support is available, and with the right tools and care, it is possible to find a path to recovery.