Is Breast Cancer a Trauma?

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

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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.