Date of Award

Spring 5-16-2020

Document Type


Degree Name

PHD - Doctor of Philosophy


Counseling Psychology

First Advisor

Susan Gere

Second Advisor

Jill Ritchie

Third Advisor

Giselle Perez-Lougee


The purpose of this qualitative study was to investigate how a serious medical diagnosis, such as cancer, can act as an acute or prolonged trauma. This was explored through the lived experiences of psychological distress of young cancer survivors. Participants were 12 men and women who had been diagnosed with cancer within the past seven years when they were between the ages of 18 and 39. From these interviews several themes emerged that describe the phenomenon of what I have termed medical traumatic stress.

Trauma from a medical event does not currently meet criteria for PTSD in the DSM-5 (2013) resulting in a diagnostic gap. Because PTSD was originally designed for a population of victims of violence and abuse, it does not align with the experience of non-violent traumatic events like disease. In addition, there are characteristics of traumatic stress caused by a medical event that are specific to the phenomenon itself rather than generalizable to other traumas. The discrepancies explored within this study were how medical trauma is caused by an internal stressor of the body attacking itself such that survivors may feel their body is no longer safe. Because serious illnesses are often chronic and lifelong they also cause future orientated concerns of prognosis and morbidity.

The study performed was a way to generate data towards building a conceptual model of medical traumatic stress that is outside of the conventional PTSD diagnosis. This was done by using results from interviews to create a follow up questionnaire where participants helped define their experiences of traumatic stress. The study concludes with a proposed diagnosis of medical traumatic stress including characteristics, themes, and symptoms.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.



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