Twenty-three percent of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to researchers from the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. African-American and Asian women and women younger than age 50 are at especially high risk.

PTSD is defined by the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) as an anxiety disorder that some people get after experiencing a dangerous event, including illnesses such as breast cancer. However, many women survive the illness without developing PTSD. That's why leading researchers are looking at healthcare disparities in the cancer treatment settings and in communities that are causing some women to suffer more than others.

For the study, reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers conducted telephone interviews with over 1,100 women who were newly diagnosed with stage I to III breast cancer. The first phone call was made at two to three months after diagnosis, but before the third cycle of chemotherapy. The second call was made at four months after diagnosis and the last call, six months after diagnosis. Researchers found that 23 percent reported PTSD symptoms at two to three months, but that symptoms generally subsided over the next few months.

The NIMH classifies PTSD symptoms into three categories:

  1. Re-experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts, racing heart, or sweating. 
  2. Avoidance symptoms that cause patients to stay away from places, events, or objects that remind them of the experience since it may trigger emotional numbness or feelings of guilt, depression, or worry. Some women experience a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities and trouble remembering the traumatic event.
  3. Hyperarousal symptoms that cause patients to be easily startled, feel tense, or to have trouble sleeping or staying calm. 

This is the first study of this kind to identify PTSD in breast cancer patients and while no specific cause or treatment has been identified, leading researchers and doctors believe that if risk factors can be identified early, patients can receive treatment and therapies that may reduce the chances they'll develop PTSD.

If you're undergoing breast cancer treatment and recognize that you might be suffering with PTSD, talk to your doctor and ask for a referral to a therapist who is experienced in treating women with both conditions.

Debra Warner, PsyD, reviewed this article.




National Institute of Mental Health
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

National Cancer Institute
Assessment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Cancer Setting

Journal of the National Cancer Institute
Racial Disparities in Posttraumatic Stress After Diagnosis of Localized Breast Cancer: The BQUAL Study

First published online: February 21, 2013
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders