Young adult cancer survivors exhibit posttraumatic stress disorder

December 14, 2000

According to a new study, one-fifth of young adults who have been cured of childhood cancer show symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, a post-war phenomenon that when applied to the experience of cancer, can include periods of overwhelming anxiety.

In a study of 78 "young adult" cancer survivors between ages 19-40, 16 (20.5 percent) were clinically diagnosed as having posttraumatic stress disorder at some time since their cancer treatment, based on a psychological interview. That is a rate four times higher than that found by a similar interview with cancer survivors aged 9-17.

"Young adulthood is normally a time of increased vulnerability to stress, but especially so with cancer survivors, who are negotiating interpersonal relationships, their ability to have children, and need to focus on a career," said the study's first author, Wendy Hobbie, a nurse practitioner at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"Yet many of these young adults worry that their lives remain in danger," said Hobbie. "Events such as driving to the hospital, or smells associated with their treatment may be reminders potent enough to generate strong physical and emotional responses more than 10 years after treatment."

These reactions are clinically significant because such symptoms may impact how cancer survivors view their health. They may be hypersensitive, or, of greater concern, "they may avoid seeking medical care because it is a reminder of their experience," said Hobbie.

Because cancer treatment can produce a number of physical disorders later in life, "it's important for health care providers to recognize such increased stress," Hobbie concluded. "These young adults need education, support and guidance to deal with the future."
"Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress in Young Adult Survivors of Childhood Cancer;" W. L. Hobbie, CRNP, et al.; Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, PA. Vol. 18, No. 24, (December) 2000, pp. 4060-4066.

The Journal of Clinical Oncology is the semi-monthly peer-reviewed journal of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the world's leading professional society representing physicians who treat people with cancer.

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