Childhood cancer survivors are more likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than their control group siblings, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics (2010 May;125(5):e1124-34).

The study, led by Margaret Stuber, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and a researcher at Jonsson Cancer Center, involved 6,542 childhood cancer survivors older than 18 years and 368 of their siblings .

Researchers reported that 9% of the childhood cancer survivors reported symptoms consistent with a full diagnosis of PTSD compared to 2% of siblings who reported PTSD symptoms. Survivors affected by PTSD reported symptoms such as increased arousal, phobias, startling easily, hypervigilence, avoidance of reminders of their cancer diagnosis and treatment, being on edge, and extreme anxiety.

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“Childhood cancer survivors, like others with PTSD, have been exposed to an event that made them feel very frightened or helpless or horrified,” said Dr. Stuber. “This study demonstrates that some of these survivors are suffering many years after successful treatment. Development of PTSD can be quite disabling for cancer survivors. This is treatable and not something they have to just live with.”

Dr. Stuber and her team explained that the survivors of their study often underwent far harsher treatment regimens commonly used in the 1970s and early 1980s, and within the group studies, those that underwent the more toxic and damaging therapies reported more cases of PTSD. As a result, they often suffered from significant late effects which may have added to their stress levels.

“People who had more intense treatment are more likely to have these symptoms because their treatment was more traumatic,” Dr. Stuber concluded. “And because more damage was done to their bodies, it makes it more difficult to have a good life later.”