Trauma, Stress, and PTSD


Blog written by Chad Latta


Mental Health is not something our culture pays a lot of actual attention to. Understandably everyone thinks of cancer as a physical disease, and thus can to some degree understand all the physical damages having cancer inflicts on us. Our scars are visible, people can see the pictures of us in the hospital and of our withered bodies, but they can’t see inside our minds. Unless you’ve been in therapy before, there’s a good chance you don’t really have a framework to understand what’s going on in there either.  Not surprisingly, when it comes to the damage of cancer, the negative psychological/emotional impacts are largely ignored. 

I have the benefit of being able to understand both of these worlds. I’m a stage 3 rectal cancer survivor who went through the range of treatment (chemo, radiation, surgeries, ostomy, j-pouch etc). In my professional life I’m a counselor and teach psychology at a university, so I wanted to blend these experiences and give some info as a starting point to understand some of the mental health issues that many people diagnosed with cancer face.

In the field of psychology there is a formal manual (the DSM-5) that lays out specific criteria for the almost 300 different mental illness diagnoses that are currently recognized. To get a diagnosis for one of these, a person needs to be formally assessed by a mental health professional.  Many people will have some symptoms of these diagnoses, but don’t meet the full criteria for an actual diagnosis. Many of the terms from the DSM have also now become part of our common language.  People throw around “Trauma, PTSD, Depression, Bipolar” etc as slang terms to refer to general mental struggles that all people face. This doesn’t mean these problems aren’t real or that they aren’t suffering - they just aren’t the actual illness.

One term that’s commonly used is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  As a slang term this has come to be used to generically describe problems following a difficult/stressful time. This isn’t correct. There are 6 different disorders in the “Stress and Trauma” section of the DSM.  Of these, PTSD is the most severe. I won’t get into all the details, but you should understand that “Trauma” has a specific definition, as do all the various disorders.  Going through a very stressful situation doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve experienced trauma.  Similarly, most people who experience trauma don’t develop a trauma disorder – just as not everyone with cancer risk factors develops cancer.

So what’s the best way to handle all of this?

Well, the first thing is do not self-diagnose.  It’s not appropriate to diagnose yourself with a mental illness for all the same reasons that it’s not appropriate to diagnose yourself with cancer - you’re biased, you don’t have the expertise, etc.  When possible, avoid using the clinical terminology (trauma, depression, PTSD etc) as slang terms.  Not only does it further confuse things, but it’s also offensive and invalidating to those who do suffer from these illnesses. Imagine someone tells you they understand your cancer struggle because they had the flu.

What you should do is get help. There are a lot of similarities here to when you got cancer. Just as you went to a doctor when you got (physically) sick, you need a professional to help you with your psychological problems.  It really doesn’t matter if you meet the criteria for a formal diagnosis or not – if you’re suffering, that’s enough.  You can heal. Your problems can get better. But ignoring them usually just makes them worse.  Our loved ones and support systems help, but it’s not the same as seeing a professional.  If you’re struggling psychologically or emotionally, get a counselor!  Think of them as just one more important part of your treatment team. 

We went through all kinds of physical hell to battle cancer. It’s a no-brainer that we do whatever we can to try to regain some type of “normal”, and our minds are no different. Don’t let mental health issues ruin your recovery or poison the life you fought so hard to keep. 

June 6, 2021