Trauma, Cancer, & Disease

By Dr. Kirsten West, FABNO, LAc, FABNO

Chronic, maladapted psychological and physiological patterns may play a larger role in disease than we once realized. Unfortunately, cancer and chronic disease are affecting a rising number of our populace daily. We must ask the “why?” and truly question the “how?” Genetics can no longer serve as our scapegoat. Not only must we consider terrain, our physiological landscape, but we must also consider the impact of trauma on that terrain. This impact cannot be ignored. In fact, the first signs of distress are not only physical but also emotional. We must pay attention. 

Trauma can result in mental and emotional patterns that interfere with our ability to manifest health and to simply “be.” Trauma sits within us. It is at the root of adaptations that once served us well as a child/adolescent/young adult but may do us a disservice later in life. Essentially, how we once adapted to emotionally and/or physically distressing situations impairs our wellbeing as adults. Most importantly, it puts our physical, mental and emotional health at risk. 

So what exactly is trauma?

For many years we have equated trauma to war, physical abuse, or other situations of great physiological/emotional magnitude- i.e., big “T” traumas. However, trauma exists in MANY ways. Poor attachment to a caregiver, not feeling emotionally seen, validated, heard, connected or safe at a young age may all be considered trauma- i.e., little “t” traumas. It is truly our perception of our experiences which define trauma. Most of our trauma, as a human species, grows from that sense of insecurity as a child. We require safety and connection to move forward in life. When that does not exist, especially in the years we learn attachment, we experience trauma and we adapt. How we adapt is different for each. Those adaptations stay with us for years and in turn affect our relationships, mental health and physical health. Little “t” and Big “T” traumas can have equally devastating effects on our health if not managed effectively. 

Poor management of that chronic stress response/adaptation may equate to chronic disease. This can be put quite simply- the body feels distress and therefore unwell. If a traumatic pattern has been around long enough, that response may not register as a subjective experience of that distress and yet the patterns persist. This is why becoming acutely aware of our inner world and our past is paramount. If depression, anxiety, and a generalized sense of distress or sensitivity to otherwise mild situations/life events are prevalent, it behooves us to look past the mind and superficial momentary thought patterns and into the body, to determine why. Mental health cannot always be helped by talk therapy and we now know that these “traumas” either big or small, must be eradicated at the physiological level. 

As a clinician, it is often the questions we forget to ask that hold the most insight with a diagnosis of disease and specifically, cancer. 

Do you have unresolved grief? 

How are your relationships with others? 

Is there any past physical, mental or emotional trauma?, 

Do you have grievances that have never been forgiven? 

Do you feel safe expressing who you truly are? 

Do you feel supported by the world around you? 

Do you speak your truth? 

These are some of the most difficult questions to ask and many times, the most difficult questions to answer. It is easier to focus on the tangibles- such as supplemental intake, dietary intake, medications and which of the latest integrative health fads are recommended as opposed to peeling back the layers of the emotional onion to discover what could lie at the core of disease. This core is the foundation for behavior and mental/emotional health or “dis” ease.

Several conditions are all aligned with a history of trauma. Autoimmunity and malignancy are good examples of these conditions. Autoimmunity is often associated with a history of abuse. In this case, the body learns to protect itself from the abuse and in so doing, self-surveillance is on overdrive- the body begins attacking itself. Clinically, blood autoimmune markers are often elevated in those with a history of abuse. Malignancy may also be attributable to a history of trauma. For example, gynecological cancers in those with a history sexual abuse, digestive cancers in those who have never fully digested and “enjoyed life” and throat cancer or cancers of the head and neck may come with a history of feeling unheard. The patterns are prevalent and while correlation does not equal causation, getting to the root of trauma can “heal.”

Of note: a diagnosis of cancer or life threatening illness is also a trauma in of itself and is akin to PTSD. Trauma begets trauma.

Emotional distress may manifest as, but is not limited to, depression, anxiety, addiction and ADHD. When we see these disorders as an adaptation, we take away their associated shame. These are more than mental processes, they are patterns recorded in the body’s physiology and are most always due to trauma. Studies show that physiological responses, including changes in brain activity, will occur over time in the face of a previous trauma. Once we adapt to a traumatic experience, the body holds those memories and forms neural connections. If unresolved, these neural connections become seasoned pathways that forge the same responses later in life. Unfortunately, those responses, more often than not, no longer serve us and may actually hinder our growth, development, and health. 

The behavioral manifestation of trauma may also present as addiction. Addiction comes in many colors and is not always drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Our relationship to food, exercise, and work may also mask deep set traumas. Pay attention to these. The moment our relationship to any of these begin to counteract our physical or mental health, there is often a traumatic experience at the core. 

The question becomes, how do we positively manage and thereby mitigate trauma? First, we must identify it. That takes honesty with ourselves, our partners, our family, and our lives. It is not easy. Often, a physical or behavioral diagnosis creates the need. Sometimes, we feel so worn down by life, which is truly our maladaptation to it, that we seek help for what appears to be mental “illness.” Whatever the case, awareness is the first step. 

Many focus on talk therapy to heal trauma. This does not work if trauma has resulted in maladapted physiological/emotional patterns. It isn’t that talk therapy isn’t helpful, but it may only help to a certain extent as maladaptation exists at the cellular level. Therefore, trauma is best helped by mind/body based therapies. Effective therapies and tools include but are not limited to: EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, hypnosis and mind/body based movements such as yoga. EMDR utilizes rapid eye movements, those that are active in sleep, to help change the way we approach events. These rapid eye movements, most active in the REM phase of sleep, help us to re-analyze our day and are imperative for memory and learning. If we can hone the brain waves active with REM, we are given the ability to make a lasting change in trauma response. This essentially reprograms the brain and subsequent physiological response. Hypnosis also serves to change brain activity and in so doing, alters adaptations and perceptions to past events. Yoga and additional mind/body movement, when done with a skilled therapist, can also help to reframe our adaptations and trauma response from a physiological level. Yoga therapy is an example of this. 

There is a physiological response when healing occurs at the physical AND emotional level. Changes in lab values may provide the first evidence of this. Clinically, this can be seen and I have been fortunate enough to witness this. It is true that when we feel “whole” we heal.

In conclusion, emotional trauma comes in many forms and many sizes. Trauma is not always a big T and more often than not, it is the little “t’s” that cause mental/emotional and physical maladaptation. These are insidious, occurring and building over time. Our ability to recognize them is often of great difficulty. We must become aware of our inner terrain, our inner voice and our inner child. This is where our truth lies and our capacity to heal awakens. In so doing, the power of supplements, dietary interventions, lifestyle changes and additional integrative therapies are exponentiated and the true changes to terrain are made.  It begins with recognition and giving ourselves the space to “be.” Trauma can be our greatest awakening if we let it be so. We must first learn how to see it.