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Childhood Cancer Survivors More Likely to Suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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In recent years, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become part of American dialog. Just a decade ago, PTSD -- a very real severe anxiety disorder in which a person suffers psychological trauma after an exposure to an event -- was a little known and privately discussed matter, seldom center stage in mainstream media.

Most of the PTSD cases the media has reported on involve the tidal wave of veterans returning from the current wars. As of fiscal year 2009, The Veteran’s Administration reported 390,000 veterans were receiving benefits for PTSD, making it the fourth-most prevalent service-connect disability; new VA cases are emerging daily.

Less reported are the number of young adults survivors of childhood cancer who develop PTSD at a rate four times greater than their healthy siblings, according to a Childhood Cancer Survivors Study published in the May 2010 journal Pediatrics.

PTSD symptoms can include re-experiencing the original trauma(s) through flashbacks or nightmares, a sense of avoidance of activities, places, thoughts or feeling that remind one of the trauma. Intense physical reaction can occur when reminded about the event, including a pounding heart, muscle tension, rapid breathing, nausea and sweating. Other common PTSD symptoms are feeling detached and emotional numbness, difficult falling or staying asleep, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, feelings of mistrust, hopelessness and depression, alienation, and thoughts of suicide.

“Childhood cancer survivors, like others with PTSD, have been exposed to an event that made them feel very frightened or helpless or horrified,” said Dr. Margaret Stuber, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, a Jonsson Cancer Center researcher and first author of the study. “This study demonstrates that some of these survivors are suffering many years after successful [cancer] treatment. Development of PTSD can be quite disabling for cancer survivors. This is treatable and not something they have to just live with.”

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