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Cancer Patients Getting PTSD Diagnosis

Updated: Saturday, August 3 2013, 04:12 PM CDT

A cancer diagnosis can be devastating, even traumatic. A national survey shows nearly a fourth of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer will develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Young women are more susceptible than others to develop symptoms early on in their treatment.

Some nights Adrienne Harmon would wake up screaming.  "Nightmares? Yes. I have graphic nightmares."  Nightmares are just one of the symptoms of PTSD.

"Flashbacks of the cancer experience? Yes," said Harmon. "I will suddenly get like flashbacks especially when I did not have breasts." The frightening visions started soon after her diagnosis with stage III breast cancer.

"My doctor started to notice I was having more anxiety than normal," said Harmon. Her symptoms worsened, as complications began to arise during treatment. "It starts to make your mind wonder, you know what's next."

"They present with a symptom of anxiety, nightmares, insomnia, sometimes they look like a patient with bipolar disorder," said Harmon's psychiatrist, Dr. Mariela Fuenmayor.

In October, Dr. Fuenmayor diagnosed Harmon with PTSD. "Many times they don't recognize the traumatic event," said Dr. Fuenmayor.

When we asked Harmon, "Had you ever thought being diagnosed with breast cancer could lead to a diagnosis like this?" Harmon responded, "No, no I had never heard of it before."

After her diagnosis, Harmon immediately started researching the anxiety disorder, discovering 1 in 4 women  with stage I to stage III breast cancer experience symptoms. The findings were published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

"Part of me seeing it felt like a bit of a relief like oh, this is a normal thing that about a quarter of the population with breast cancer and I've read that it's higher in younger women," said Harmon.

Researchers say younger women, like Harmon who was 37 at the time, are more prone to PTSD symptoms. Data also suggests Asian and black women are at a more than 50 percent higher risk than white women.

"If they see symptoms and they start getting treatment and counseling earlier they might not go into full blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," said Harmon.

Harmon wishes she could've identified her symptoms sooner, but she's glad to be  getting the help she needs now.

"I work with a counselor and then I'm also on a very light medication to help with the sleep," said Harmon. "It's getting better."

Harmon is also a member of the Pink Ribbon Cowgirls, a support group for younger women with breast cancer. It's one of many support groups hosted by the Breast Cancer Resource Center to help patients through treatments.

For more information on PTSD diagnosis for breast cancer patients, or to donate to the BCRC, visit their website.

Saturday, May 18th the BCRC is hosting a fundraiser called Art Bra Austin. For tickets visit their website.

Next Friday, we'll continue our series on breast cancer awareness on KEYE TV with a look at a support group for young mothers battling stage III breast cancer.

By Deeda Payton

Cancer Patients Getting PTSD Diagnosis


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