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The hidden scars of cancer: families struggle with post-traumatic stress

By Ivanhoe Newswire 5:39 PM January 23, 2014

The life-threatening diagnosis can leave families feeling fear and helplessness

WILMINGTON, Del.  (Ivanhoe Newswire) — Just like a soldier returning from battle may experience post-traumatic stress, so too can the loved ones of cancer patients. The life-threatening diagnosis can leave families living in intense fear, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, and avoiding people or places that trigger bad memories.

When 12-year-old Sammy Bradly began falling asleep at baseball practice, he knew something was wrong.

“I just wasn’t feeling the same. I didn’t feel like me,” Sammy told Ivanhoe.

He was diagnosed with AML leukemia.

“Honestly I pretty much fell to my knees and blacked out,” Annie Bradly, Sammy’s mom, told Ivanhoe.

He endured six months of chemo.

Sammy said, “I met a lot of people in the hospital and I was the only one to walk away alive,” including losing his best friend Noxah to cancer.

“He was the only person I knew that would understand how I felt,” Sammy said.

Four years now in remission, the experience has not been forgotten.

“I know that these guys don’t know, but there are days where I just start crying for no reason at all,” Annie explained.

Intense fear still plagues Sammy’s mom.

“What do I do? We’re okay, but are we okay?” Annie said.

Dr. Anne Kazak says these traumatic stress symptoms are more common in parents than people know.

“It might be bad dreams or nightmares. It might also just be that you’re walking down the street and all of the sudden you are back in that moment,” Anne Kazak, PhD, ABPP, Pediatric Psychologist, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, told Ivanhoe.

One study of 171 mothers and fathers of cancer patients found all but one had post-traumatic stress, closely related to PTSD; something Dr. Kazak says affects about one in three parents.

She says her best advice is to focus on what you can control.

“It’s almost never helpful to worry too much in advance,” Dr. Kazak said.

Also, Dr. Kazak recommends finding support.

“Reflect on the fact that you are in a war against cancer,” Dr. Kazak explained.

It is a fight Sammy’s family accepts.

“It’s just a huge part of who I am today,” Sammy said.

There are things that parents can do to help with traumatic stress symptoms. Relaxation techniques such as visualization, deep breathing, yoga, and meditation may be helpful. Both healthcare professionals and parents looking for information about medical trauma can log onto www.healthcaretoolbox.org.

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