Post Traumatic Growth and Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work, Emeritus

AUGUST 29, 2018

Suffering Can Lead to Positive Change

We are all familiar with PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Today I am writing about a more positive possible outcome: Post-Traumatic Growth. The concept that suffering can be a source of positive personal change has deep roots in many ancient thoughts and traditions. Some studies suggest that, after a traumatic event, people are more likely to be positively changed than to become depressed or highly anxious. It seems likely that all kinds of reactions are common post cancer, but that we can try to find ways to “make lemonade” from the very big lemons of the diagnosis. I would never suggest that cancer, in any way, is a blessing, but I do believe that the experience can give us an opportunity to step out of our busy lives and consider how we want to spend our time and energy.

The positive life changes and perspectives that can develop as a result of a stressful, frightening experience are called “post-traumatic growth.” Note that post-traumatic growth is not the same as resilience, although many people may possess both attributes. Resilience describes people "bouncing back" or returning to their previous levels of functioning. On the other hand, post-traumatic growth refers to positive personal change of some kind.

Types of personal growth

People may experience different types of change/growth while coping with cancer, including:

  • Improved relations with others. Living with cancer may increase feelings of closeness or intimacy with family or friends. We may value our relationships in new ways.
  • New life experiences. Having cancer may change priorities and result in different life decisions. This may include making a major career or relationship change or working towards a long-held goal. We may just decide to take a few risks, stop delaying experiences and even to be more generous with ourselves and others.
  • A greater appreciation for life. A cancer survivor may have an increased regard for life’s value or a new sense of vulnerability. Cancer reminds us all of our mortality. We actually do stop to smell a rose or pull off the road to admire the sun setting over the water.
  • A sense of personal strength. Living with cancer can help develop increased mental strength and a sense of empowerment. You can be proud of what you have accomplished. You probably did things that you weren't sure that you could do and found pockets of courage you didn't know that you had.
  • Spiritual development. Some people living with cancer find they gain an increased interest in practicing religion or adding spiritual depth to their daily lives. Almost everyone at least    thinks about life’s existential realities. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are not too many cancer patients who haven't given this some thought.

Experiencing post-traumatic growth does not mean that you have completely overcome the stress and other feelings about having cancer. Growth and suffering can happen at the same time. In fact, most people who report post-traumatic growth also report distress, and not everyone has the experience at all.

Encouraging personal growth

To foster personal growth in response to the challenges of living with cancer, consider the following:

  • Reduce anxiety. Find ways to minimize anxiety and tension, such as using relaxation techniques, exercising regularly, meditating or talking with supportive friends.
  • Reflect on your experience. Writing about itor talking with a friend or family member are ways to process and make sense of a traumatic event.
  • Restore a sense of safety. To feel safer, some people may need to talk with a mental health worker, such as a counselor. Others may find security by talking to a chaplain or spiritual adviser.
  • Connect with others. Talking with a group of people who have had similar paths can help you look at your cancer journey in a new way. Consider joining a support group.
  • Create a post-cancer life vision. Think through what you have learned from your experience. Then think about how to put a plan in place for living more fully.

Does this ring true for you? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us: http://www.cancercommunity.bidmc.org/