Is Breast Cancer a Trauma?
Written by Naomi L. Baum, Ph.D.
From the moment I heard my cancer diagnosis, life as I had previously known it
abruptly ceased, and my new life began to unfold in front of me in slow motion.
Considering this period of time from the perspective of a trauma psychologist who was
diagnosed with breast cancer on June 16, 2011, I find myself wondering whether this was
a traumatic event, or not.
From my years of experience in the field of trauma and resilience, I know that a
trauma is something that tears your life apart. There is life before the trauma, and then
there is life after. That is certainly true of a breast cancer diagnosis. Close to four years
after diagnosis, I mark the date of my diagnosis as a turning point in my life. There was
“Life Before” when I took so much for granted, and made long term plans. There is “Life
After,” where I am grateful for every day and for most moments during the day. I have
made a conscious decision to do the things I want to do now, or in the very near future,
and not push them off until a later date. If I want to see Venice, I take a vacation to
Venice. If I want to spend more time with my children and grandchildren, I make it my
business to do so. If I want to bicycle in field of wildflowers, I am out the door and on my
bike. Leaving my full time working career, and moving on to a flexible consulting
business was definitely motivated by this feeling that there is more to life than work, and
has enabled me to take more control over my time.
Another piece of the puzzle in characterizing an event as traumatic is how the person
is coping with the shocking news that they have cancer. Both for me and for many of the
people I met, a cancer diagnosis is overwhelming, and takes a while to recover from the
initial shock. As a trauma psychologist, I probably had more skills available and ready to
deal with this blow, however, I recall moving as if through a fog during those first weeks
after diagnosis. Scheduling the seemingly endless medical appointments, telling my
children and parents about the diagnosis, and figuring out how to handle work during this
time of uncertainty, I looked and acted for the most part coherent. Truth be told, I was
functioning on automatic pilot, barely holding myself together, every once in a while,
rushing to the privacy of a toilet cubicle to cry my eyes out.
Using tools such as guided imagery and breathing meditation were very helpful tools
to me right from the start. Adding other tools such as self-hypnosis, massage and
acupuncture also helped me along the way. Each person needs to find what is right for
How long it takes to get one’s bearings in this sea of cancer can be extremely
variable. Your ability to cope and resiliently bounce back, or forward, is highly
dependent on what you were like before the cancer. Were you depressed and barely
coping back then? Were you optimistic, cheerful and active? All these are significant
predictors in how you will cope with a cancer diagnosis. Whatever the case may be,
there is always room to learn new ways to cope, including what feels good to you right
now and how to ask for it.
While we have not exhausted the list of post-traumatic symptoms which can
include intrusive thoughts and pictures, disordered sleep, difficulty focusing, numbing of
emotions and more, we can conclude that a cancer diagnosis is highly traumatic, often
causing a significant number of post traumatic symptoms and distress . Learning about
how others have reacted and are dealing with the diagnosis, treatment and follow up can
be very helpful in understanding that much of what we are feeling is both normal and
expected. Finding ways to help ourselves feel better, calm ourselves down, relax, and
enjoy life again is essential in our road to recovery.
About the Author
Naomi L Baum, Ph.D., is an international consultant in the field of psychological management of traumas and disasters with an emphasis on resilience. She recently published a book, “Life Unexpected: A Trauma Psychologist Journeys through Breast Cancer.” She is the mother of seven and grandmother of 12.