Resilience, Posttraumatic Growth and Cancer

Resilience, Posttraumatic Growth and Cancer

 By Jim Windell

            Some people are more resilient than others. And some people experience posttraumatic growth – rather than decline – after living through a serious trauma. We know that suffering from cancer can be traumatic. But can resilience and posttraumatic growth affect the long-term outcomes for cancer patients?
            This was the question raised by Hilary Sircus, a clinical psychology student from Franklin, Michigan, in a paper she recently completed for a clinical psychology course. Entitled “Resilience and Posttraumatic Growth in Cancer Patients,” Ms. Sircus reviewed the literature pertaining to resilience and post traumatic growth for those with cancer.
             Resilience is the ability to adapt when faced with adversity, but there is significant research suggesting that not only are some people born with resilience, but it can be learned and developed. And often, the parenting style with which an individual was raised can predict resilience. On the other hand, the term post-traumatic growth is used to explain the positive changes a person experiences due to the impact of a traumatic event or major life crisis. Tedeschi and Calhoun (2004) define post-traumatic growth as “the experience of individuals whose development, at least in some areas, has surpassed what was present before the struggle with crises occurred.” In short, post-traumatic growth defines the positive psychological change resulting from trauma or a life crisis. A study conducted from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans suggests that greater social connectedness, intrinsic religiosity and purpose of life are independently associated with greater PTG.

            Although getting a cancer diagnosis is not exactly the same as being physically assaulted or going through the horrors of as war, still more than 60 % of people view their cancer diagnosis as a death sentence. Thus, according to Ms. Sircus, being diagnosed with cancer is traumatic. Still, some cancer patients may experience personal growth as a result of their diagnosis. For instance, Ms. Sircus writes, some cancer patients may experience a deeper connection with their friends and family; some may develop closer connections with others based on the support they are; some may change their priorities, deciding on new life choices; may may develop a greater appreciation for life and discover what they truly value; and some  may find a new or deeper interest in spirituality or religion.

            Research, Ms. Sircus points out, suggests that there are three keys to people having a positive growth experience after finding out they have cancer. These keys are 1.) being able to adapt well to new experiences and challenges; 2.) having a cheerful outlook; and 3.) having a strong social support network. “If someone possesses all of these elements,: Ms. Sircus writes, “the more likely they are to have better posttraumatic growth and resilience during a cancer experience.” 

            If a cancer patient does not have an abundance of resilience, there are exercises for improving resilience. The Mayo Clinic, for instance, recommends people work on improving their attention and awareness. Becoming more intentional and purposeful will help decrease  negative thoughts and draw attention to what is most meaningful to the individual. Ms. Sircus points out that improving one’s resilience can be challenging to do alone, but, fortunately, there are programs available to help assist individuals who are in need of increased resilience. One example of a program to increase resilience is the Penn Resilience Program (PRP). The PRP is an evidence-based program that helps by providing a set of practical skills that can be applied to one’s everyday lives. The research suggests that the PRP can help individuals increase well-being and optimism, reduce and prevent depression, decrease anxiety and conduct problems, while leading to fewer substance abuse and mental health difficulties.

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