Ronni Gordon is  a cancer survivor and long-time journalist who has written about her journey, about health and fitness, and about how she and others have prevailed in difficult situations. She brings to her writing a mix of personal experience with knowledge about the health-care system and how cancer patients can navigate it. A graduate of Vassar College with a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, she is a freelance writer who worked in daily newspapers for more than 30 years. She has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dana FarberCancer Institute magazine, and Cancer Today magazine. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her dog, Maddie, short for Madison (Avenue) in honor of her hometown, New York, and is mother of three grown children, Ben, Joe, and Katie

Ronni Gordon

Can Cancer Diagnosis Boost Personal Growth?

Tuesday, 05 Nov 2013 10:21 AM

By Ronni Gordon

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 Most people have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but they may not be familiar with another term, post-traumatic growth, which refers to gains after a traumatic experience.
 
Various researchers have tested the idea of post-traumatic growth after cancer, and now a new study has added to the body of evidence.
 
The lead author of a study in the current online edition of the journal Psycho-Oncology writes that many women who have had breast cancer are surprised when they have positive outcomes psychologically.
 
The study, conducted at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., examined post-traumatic growth (PTG) over two years in 653 women.

"Many women who have breast cancer often experience distress but sometimes are surprised that they also may experience a variety of positive outcomes following diagnosis," wrote Suzanne Danhauer, associate professor of public health sciences at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study.
 
The study examined change in post-traumatic growth over two years in 653 women. Participants completed surveys within eight months of diagnosis and also six, 12 and 18 months after that. According to the researchers, a total PTG index increased over time.
 
Past studies of breast cancer survivors have also showed this post-traumatic growth depending on level of support and other factors, and a study of bone marrow transplant recipients reported in Health Psychology in 2005 found the same thing.
 
According to The American Society of Clinical Oncology, post-traumatic growth can be exhibited in many ways:
  • Improved relationships: Experiencing increased feelings of closeness or intimacy with family or friends;
  • New life experiences: Making a change in career, overcoming a fear, or accomplishing a life goal;
  • A greater appreciation for life: Having increased awareness about your position in the world or new sense of vulnerability to death that changes how you live each day;
  • A sense of personal strength: Finding increased psychological rigor, resilience, or sense of empowerment;
  • Spiritual development: Gaining an increased interest in practicing religion or integrating spirituality into daily life.
 A friend who had breast cancer said it's true that she feels stronger from having survived cancer, but studies like these omit the other part of the equation, which is, frankly, that she thinks about death every day.
After my bone marrow transplant I also experienced some of these positive changes but am left with an on-again off-again fear of recurrence and repeated dreams that I am told I have six months left and there is no cure.
 
But if there is frequently a pressure to be upbeat, it's more common among breast cancer survivors; Barbara Ehrenrich, the author and breast cancer survivor, has written at length of what she calls the "relentless cheerfulness" of the breast cancer movement.
 
The American Society of Clinical Oncology, in a post on Cancer.Net, explains the fuller picture: "It should also be noted that experiencing post-traumatic growth does not necessarily mean that the person has overcome the stressor. In fact, most people who report post-traumatic growth also report simultaneously experiencing struggles with their trauma."
 
Here are some ways to foster growth after cancer:
  • Find ways to minimize tension and anxiety: Make time to reduce your anxiety by using relaxation techniques, engaging in recreation, or talking to supportive friends or a counselor.
  • Reflection:You may consider journaling or talking with a friend as a way to process your memories of the trauma and make sense of the experience.
  • Restore a sense of safety: To feel less vulnerable, some people may need to speak with a professional trained in mental health, while others may find solace talking to a chaplain or spending time in nature and solitude.
  • Create a post-trauma life vision: Think through what you have learned from this experience and how it affects your strategy for living more fully.

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