Post-Traumatic Growth and Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 03/2019

The concept that suffering can be a source of positive personal change has deep roots in many ancient thoughts and traditions. But scientific research trying to explain it is quite new. Studies show that after a traumatic event, reports of personal growth are more common than those of psychiatric disorders.

What is post-traumatic growth?

The term "post-traumatic growth" describes the positive life changes that develop through a stressful, frightening experience. For some, this growth happens during the cancer experience.

Researchers note that post-traumatic growth is not the same as resilience. Resilience describes people returning to their previous levels of functioning. Meanwhile, post-traumatic growth refers to positive personal change.

Types of personal growth

People may experience different types of growth while coping with cancer, including:

Improved relations with others. Living with cancer may deepen your connection with family or friends. You may grow closer by supporting each other. It may also be easier to connect with others who have had a traumatic event.

New life experiences. Having cancer may change your priorities. As a result, you may make different life choices, such as making a career change or overcoming a fear.

A greater appreciation for life. You may value life more and feel a new sense of vulnerability to death. This awareness may help you appreciate the world in new ways.

A sense of personal strength. You may develop more mental strength and feel empowered. This can result from feeling proud of what you have accomplished.

Spiritual development. You may have more of an interest in practicing religion or adding spiritual depth to your life.

Factors contributing to post-traumatic growth

Even with post-traumatic growth, you may feel stress and negative feelings. Growth and suffering can happen at the same time. In fact, most people who report post-traumatic growth also report having struggles.

Post-traumatic growth, like post-traumatic stress, is not universal. Research shows that the following people are more likely to have it:

  • Those who generally adapt well to new experiences and challenges

  • Those who keep a cheerful outlook

  • Those who have a strong social support network

Ways to encourage personal growth

To foster personal growth through your cancer experience, consider these steps:

Reduce anxiety. Find ways to minimize anxiety and tension. For example, use relaxation techniques, exercise regularly, and talk with supportive friends.

Reflect on your experience. Process your experience through journaling or talking with supportive people.

Restore a sense of safety. Consider talking with a mental health worker, like a counselor. Other supportive professionals include social workers, chaplains, and spiritual advisors.

Connect with others. Join a support group of people living with cancer. Find mutual support and encouragement by talking with others who understand your experience.

Create a post-trauma life vision. Think through what you have learned from your experience. Then, plan how you want to live more fully.

Related Resources

3 Tips for Transitioning Out of Cancer Treatment

Online Communities for Support

More Information

National Cancer Institute: Facing Forward—Life After Cancer Treatment

UNC Charlotte Department of Psychology: What is Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)?