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Cancer, trauma and post-traumatic growth: A new way of thinking about long-term illness

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When we talk about cancer, we tend to do so from a physical perspective. We talk about the symptoms, signs and screenings. We discuss treatment plans, medical advancements, studies and survival rates. We measure victories in limiting the spread of cancer within an individual, we celebrate those who achieve remission, and we applaud someone’s ability to cope with the myriad of physical health difficulties that cancer (and the treatment of it) can cause. We recognise that cancer is an extremely traumatic physical experience: but why do we shy away from discussing the negative mental impact cancer often has on those going through it?

According to Cancer Research UK, 50% of cancer patients will survive the disease for ten years or more. When you consider the fact that nearly 22% of cancer patients report symptoms of PTSD within the first six months of treatment, and 25% of cancer patients experience clinical depression either during or after treatment, the importance of understanding cancer and its impact on people’s mental health becomes significantly more apparent.

Experiencing something as physically demanding and isolating as cancer can indeed be mentally traumatic – I know this because I have been through it myself. By recognising the disease as a trauma, and providing the kind of mental health support that trauma survivors require as part of all cancer treatments, we could open the door to a more holistic and successful approach for people during and after cancer treatment. In incorporating a more inclusive system into cancer treatments, that address both a patient’s mental and physical health, we’ll be better able to protect the long-term, mental well-being of patients.

It’s important to build a support network made up of people that understand what it means to go through cancer, as opposed to having loved ones that care for you but simply cannot understand your full experience.

I personally coped with the emotional and mental trauma caused by my diagnosis by sharing my cancer journey with others through a designated blog, which I named Fabian Bolin’s War On Cancer. By channelling my experience into this, I developed several coping mechanisms that helped make the overall experience of cancer more bearable. The first and most obvious coping mechanism that resulted from this blog was the catharsis brought on by expressive writing. Journaling my experience enabled me to process my unexpected diagnosis, and cope with the mental and physical side effects of my treatment in real-time.

Through my blog, I also tapped into a social support network that proved to be a crucial coping mechanism throughout my experience with cancer. It’s important to build a support network made up of people that understand what it means to go through cancer, as opposed to having loved ones that care for you but simply cannot understand your full experience. My blog was a useful tool in helping my friends and family understand how they could better support me during my treatment in 2015, as they learned how to treat me as a person going through cancer, rather than a victim of this disease.

Hands leaning on railing overlooking river

My final, key coping mechanism resulted from helping others. Not only did helping others by sharing my journey aid in healing my trauma, but it also helped others find solace in their experiences, too. Sharing experiences and conversing with others who share similar challenges had one of the biggest impacts on my mental health and helped me gain a bigger sense of purpose. So much so that I even began to feel, in some ways, almost grateful for my diagnosis, as it helped me to feel happier than ever before.

Everyone going through cancer deserves the opportunity to understand and experience post-traumatic growth if they want to, and the first step towards achieving that is making sure mental well-being before, during and after treatment is part of every cancer discussion.

I’ve come to realise that the positives I’ve drawn from my experience stem from the idea of ‘post-traumatic growth’. While it might seem counterintuitive, this term describes the positive life changes that can develop out of a stressful, frightening experience. It’s a more literal, psychological term for a phoenix rising from the ashes – a way to make the evolution that a person goes through after a very difficult experience, which is often life-affirming, more tangible.

For some cancer patients, this growth will happen during their physical experience and treatment of cancer – for others, it may come long after treatment has ended. Either way, post-traumatic growth can lead to a myriad of benefits. These benefits can include improved relationships with others, a sense of personal strength, a greater appreciation for life and even spiritual development. It can be the difference between cancer being a trauma and being a life-affirming experience – and it is important that we aim for the latter, especially when so many people are living with the disease long-term.

This is not to say that proper mental health support, and an understanding of post-traumatic growth will make going through cancer less challenging. The disease is a difficult one to manage: it is physically and mentally taxing, and it is often hard to explain the profound effects that cancer can have on one’s psyche if they have not been through the experience themselves.

Still, if we continue to work towards changing the way we frame cancer and continue to push for better mental health support to the point where it is considered another facet of cancer treatment, we can start to help those going through cancer to live in the best way possible during treatment and beyond. Everyone going through cancer deserves the opportunity to understand and experience post-traumatic growth if they want to, and the first step towards achieving that is making sure mental well-being before, during and after treatment is part of every cancer discussion.

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Fabian Bolin

Written by Fabian Bolin

Fabian Bolin is CEO and co-founder of War on Cancer, the social network for everyone affected by cancer. Listen to Fabian and his co-host Sebastian on the War On Cancer podcast.

Written by Fabian Bolin

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