Just like a soldier returning from battle may experience post-traumatic stress, so too can the loved ones of cancer patients. The life-threatening diagnosis can leave families living in intense fear, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, and avoiding people or places that trigger bad memories.
When 12-year-old Sammy Bradly began falling asleep at baseball practice, he knew something was wrong.
"I just wasn't feeling the same. I didn’t feel like me," said Sammy, who was diagnosed with AML leukemia.
"Honestly, I pretty much fell to my knees and blacked out," said Annie Bradly, Sammy’s mom.
Sammy endured six months of chemotherapy.
"I met a lot of people in the hospital and I was the only one to walk away alive," said Sammy, who lost his best friend, Noxah, to cancer.
"He was the only person I knew that would understand how I felt," Sammy said.
Four years now in remission, the experience has not been forgotten.
"I know that these guys don't know, but there are days where I just start crying for no reason at all," Annie explained.
Intense fear still plagues Sammy’s mom.
"What do I do? We're okay, but are we okay?" Annie said.
Dr. Anne Kazak said the traumatic stress symptoms are more common in parents than people know.
"It might be bad dreams or nightmares. It might also just be that you’re walking down the street and all of the sudden you are back in that moment," said Kazak, pediatric psychologist, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.
One study of 171 mothers and fathers of cancer patients found all but one had post-traumatic stress, closely related to PTSD; something Kazak said affects about one in three parents.
She said her best advice is to focus on what you can control.
"It's almost never helpful to worry too much in advance," Kazak said.
Also, Kazak recommends finding support.
"Reflect on the fact that you are in a war against cancer," Kazak explained.
It is a fight Sammy's family accepts.
"It’s just a huge part of who I am today," Sammy said.
There are things that parents can do to help with traumatic stress symptoms. Relaxation techniques such as visualization, deep breathing, yoga, and meditation may be helpful. Both healthcare professionals and parents looking for information about medical trauma can go to healthcaretoolbox.org.