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Survivorship: During and After Treatment

Post-traumatic Growth and Cancer

Going through cancer is a life-changing experience. But these changes are not always negative. Many people share that having cancer led to positive changes to their goals, beliefs, and how they live.

What is post-traumatic growth?

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is the name for the positive changes that can happen to a person as a result of living through a trauma (like cancer). PTG is internal, mental, emotional, and psychological growth.

Post-traumatic growth is different from resilience.

Resilience is your ability to keep or get back to how you lived and functioned before the trauma. Post-traumatic growth is new growth that changes the way you think, live, or function.  

When (and how) does post-traumatic growth happen?

Going through a traumatic event doesn’t always lead to post-traumatic growth. And the growth usually doesn’t happen overnight. But over time, people who experience PTG often make meaningful life changes that better fit their personal beliefs, values, and goals.

Many people report struggling with their sense of self during or after cancer treatment. It’s normal and common to feel this way after a trauma like cancer.

It’s also common to wait, and not start processing everything until after your cancer treatment is over. You might be in “survival mode” for most of your treatment. This is your brain’s way of trying to protect you, so you have the mental and emotional ability to get through a terrifying experience.

Our brains often do this automatically, without us even realizing.

But it’s important to know that at some point, you will need to process and cope with what you’ve been through. This is an essential part of moving forward as a cancer survivor. Talking to a counselor or joining a support group can help you work through this. Talk to your health care team if you need a referral.

If you are thinking about suicide or hurting yourself, please get help right away. You are not alone.

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support via phone or chat for people in distress, resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Includes information on finding your local crisis center.

Phone: 988

  • Interpretation for more than 240 languages
  • ASL Videophone for people who are deaf or hard of hearing

Text: 988 (English and Spanish only)

Website: http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org

To get immediate help, you can also go to the emergency department or call 911.

Common post-traumatic growth changes

Here are some of the most common post-traumatic growth changes that people who have, or had, cancer describe experiencing:

Deeper connections to others

Going through cancer can have a major impact on your relationships. Some people grow closer, while others grow apart. Many people report wanting deeper or more meaningful connections with others.

Shifting priorities

A cancer diagnosis may shift your priorities and change what you view as most important. Some people make major life choices, such as changing their job or taking a chance on something they were afraid to try before.

Greater appreciation and awe

Some people say they value life more and feel more aware of the beauty and joy around them. This awareness may help you appreciate the world in new ways.

Increased sense of personal strength

Some people report feeling like they are a stronger person because of their experience with cancer. This can also help you feel more confident and treat yourself with greater compassion.

Spiritual or religious growth

It’s common for people to seek spiritual growth during or after cancer treatment. For some people, their religious beliefs are connected to their spirituality. Religious beliefs and spirituality are related, but not the same.

Spirituality often refers to a person’s internal search for meaning, purpose, or connection to something greater than themselves. Religion often refers to organized beliefs related to a specific faith or religion.

Both religion and spirituality might include ideas such as the spirit, soul, or greater meaning and connection to something larger. Someone might consider themselves spiritual, religious, or both.

Does everyone go through PTG after cancer?

Post-traumatic growth, like post-traumatic stress, is not something everyone experiences. PTG doesn’t mean “getting over” or “moving past” cancer. Growth and grief can and often do happen at the same time. Each person experiences PTG differently. And it’s okay if you don’t go through the “common” growth changes listed here, or if your growth looks different than what you hear from other survivors.

Why is it important to process your trauma?

Processing your trauma after cancer is about more than just personal growth. Not processing trauma can affect your nervous system, too. The nervous system is often referred to as our unconscious “flight or fight” and “rest and digest” responses.

Fight or flight refers to your sympathetic nervous system, which is controlled by your brain. When you feel stressed, your fight or flight response is triggered automatically. You might notice your heart rate gets fast or your stomach hurts.

The rest and digest response refers to times when you feel calm or relaxed. Rest and digest helps you conserve mental and physical energy.

Most people go back and forth between “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” throughout the day. Both of these responses are important.

But if your nervous system gets of out of balance (dysregulated), certain parts of your brain can get smaller, larger, and more (or less) reactive to stress. When this happens, your body doesn’t get the rest it needs. Or, you might stay in rest and digest when you are faced with a real threat.  A dysregulated nervous system affects your ability to cope or heal after trauma.

Learning to regulate your nervous system after trauma

Here are some activities that have been shown to support a healthy nervous system. Practicing these can help you balance your nervous system after experiencing cancer or another trauma.

Mind-body practices

Mind-body practices such as meditation and yoga have been shown to support a healthy nervous system.

Grounding techniques

Grounding techniques can help if you feel like you are stuck in fight or flight. These are often simple activities that connect you to one or more of your senses (things you can touch, see, hear, smell, or taste).

Talking to a therapist

Finding a therapist can help, especially one who has experience with cancer survivors or other survivors of trauma. They are specially trained and can help guide you if you aren’t sure how or where to start healing.

Certain types of therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) have been shown to help people process trauma.

Learn more about coping with mental distress and resources for support.

Find more support

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Developed by the American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team with medical review and contribution by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

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Last Revised: May 30, 2024

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