Preventing Body-Trauma Triggers During Radiation Therapy for Cancer

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Positions adopted during radiation therapy may trigger a body's "fight or flight" response.
Positions adopted during radiation therapy may trigger a body's "fight or flight" response.

Radiation therapy is one of the most heavily valued and relied upon treatments for many cancers in the United States; it is administered daily, all over the country. In a nutshell, radiation damages cells by destroying the genetic material that controls how they grow and divide. Although both healthy and cancerous cells are damaged during radiation therapy, the goal is to destroy as few of the healthy cells as possible. However, many patients with cancer do not fully take stock of the scope of changes that have occurred within their bodies before undergoing radiation treatment because they may not be aware of the possible implications.

During radiation therapy, patients are asked to hold still in a position their nervous system may identify as potentially body-harming, triggering the patient's “fight, flight, or freeze” response.

This event can occur in patients who have had a prior experience in which they had no choice but to freeze. As a result, they may suddenly find themselves re-experiencing the trauma symptoms that were recorded in their nervous system during their therapy session.2

These patients may benefit from psychoeducation on somatic experiencing (SE). This practice can prevent the patient re-experiencing a prior trauma or at least mitigate the symptoms. Any patient undergoing radiation therapy could potentially benefit from psychoeducation on SE as well.1

Trauma symptoms can arise when residual energy from a traumatic experience isn't let go from the body. Rather than being discharged, the energy stays trapped in the nervous system where it is detrimental to the body and mind, according to Peter A. Levine, PhD, a psychologist and expert in somatic therapy.3 Dr Levine explains that trauma is recorded within the nervous system. During a traumatic experience, our bodies may freeze as a way to disengage or disassociate our minds from our bodies to protect us from the cognitive experience of any physical trauma.3  

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