By Carleen Newsome, LPC
When someone in our family is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness like cancer, we often experience a wide range of emotions. When it is our child who receives the diagnosis, we may feel heart-wrenching fear and anxiety unlike anything we have ever experienced. The moment we hear “the news” is a moment etched in our memories. Distressing or life-threatening moments like that are traumatic experiences that can severely compromise our emotional well-being. Unfortunately, when our child has cancer we are continuously exposed to an onslaught of traumatic experiences such as the first moment of diagnosis, telling our child, telling other family members, procedures, treatment decisions, and/or watching our child suffer emotionally or physically.
After a traumatic event, it is normal and expected to feel frightened, sad, anxious and even disconnected. Usually these symptoms fade with time and their impact on our health, emotional regulation, decision-making abilities and ability to manage our daily routine is minimal. For some people, however, the event remains painful and the memories and symptoms do not fade. This heightened anxiousness can then begin to affect the way we relate to the world and can decrease our quality of life. It is important for parents to pay attention to their own emotional health and monitor how their child’s diagnosis, illness, treatment, and prognosis is effecting their own ability to be a parent, a caretaker and a decision maker. Although there are often immediate action items and decisions to be made upon hearing a cancer diagnosis, it is still important for parents to take the time to explore and discuss their own fears and anxieties if they want to remain emotionally healthy and therefore most effective.
Sometimes parents who have experienced the trauma associated with their child’s cancer may start to show signs of extreme anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They may develop ongoing problems with relationships, self-esteem, anger management and even daily life functions. Symptoms of PTSD can develop immediately or can appear gradually over time. They are often triggered by something that is reminiscent of the original trauma such as an image, smell, sound or a situation. PTSD symptoms typically start within three months of a traumatic event; however, in some cases PTSD symptoms may not appear until years later.
Although no two people are alike, the symptoms of PTSD manifest themselves in three main ways: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal. First, PTSD sufferers may re-experience the traumatic event through upsetting memories, flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of intense distress and strong physical reactions such as rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating and rapid heart rate. Secondly they may experience avoidance and numbing. For example, they may avoid places, thoughts or feelings that remind them of the trauma and/or they may not be able to remember important aspects of the event. The fall out associated with an attempt to avoid or numb can include avoiding activities they once enjoyed, feelings of hopelessness about the future, concentration and memory problems, alcohol or drug use, and/or difficulty maintaining close relationships. Finally, increased anxiety and emotional arousal are a third category of PTSD symptoms. Sufferers may have difficulty staying or falling asleep, find it hard to concentrate, feel jumpy and be easily startled, and/or exhibit irritability and outbursts of anger.
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can come and go. Parents may have more post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms when things are stressful in general, or when they run into reminders of what they and/or their child went through. For instance, they may feel panic each time they drive by the road that leads to their child’s doctor’s office. Or they may see a report on the news about a cancer survivor and feel overcome by memories of their own family’s fight with cancer.
It is normal to have a wide range of feelings and emotions after a traumatic event. Parents might experience fear and anxiety, a lack of focus, sadness, changes in how well they sleep or how much they eat, or crying spells that catch them off guard. They may have nightmares or be unable to stop thinking about the event. This doesn’t mean they have post-traumatic stress disorder. But if they have these disturbing thoughts and feelings for more than a month, if the symptoms are severe, or if they feel they are having trouble getting their life back under control, it may be time to talk to someone about getting help to prevent PTSD symptoms from getting worse.
Many forms of therapy have proven effective in the treatment of trauma. Three of the most effective are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). An individual therapist can help parents deal with the aftermath of a traumatic event by using these therapies to help them process the event, reduce fear and anxiety, and develop healthier ways to respond in situations that trigger the traumatic memories.
Carleen Newsome is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) at the Summit Counseling Center in Johns Creek, GA.
CURE’s Partners in Caring Counseling Program helps address the unique psychological needs of families affected by childhood cancer. CURE families are eligible to receive up to 10 counseling sessions with licensed professionals at minimal cost. We also host free workshops and webinars several times throughout the year.