Can Cancer be Caused by Childhood Trauma?
Childhood Trauma. The exact causes of cancer are still not completely known, but there are plenty of factors that are known to contribute to it. Inflammation, malnutrition, severe sleep disorders, and stress are all able to cause mutations in your cells and potentially make them harmful and cancerous.
Trauma, and specifically childhood trauma leaves long-term consequences on one’s mental, emotional, and physical health, with studies that now show a correlation with obesity, diabetes type 2, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional response to a horrific event after which a person usually experiences shock and denial. They also list a variety of long-term reactions to trauma such as nausea, headaches, flashbacks, and unpredictable emotions.
The Trauma-Informed Center states that these long-term effects can severely impact one’s life and impair their mental, emotional, social, and physical well-being. Traumatic experiences and their severity depend on the individual and their mental state, but in general, some of the most common include:
- Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse
- War, acts of terrorism, violence, and environmental disasters
- Childhood neglect and trauma
- Racism, discrimination, and oppression
- Sudden death or separation from a loved one
- Living with someone who’s suffering from a mental illness or substance abuse disorders
Every person experiences trauma in a different way and how it may affect their life can be completely different from someone else who might be going through the same thing. Trauma can also occur at any moment in someone’s life, but studies show it has debilitating consequences and long-term effects on children and their brain development.
Also known as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, childhood trauma is defined as traumatic experiences that occur between the ages of 0 and 17. These include trauma connected to a form of abuse or violence that was committed on their person, as well as all aspects of the child’s environment that can be detrimental to their sense of safety, bonding, and stability. These include all instances of children living in households with family members who suffer from a mental health illness, substance use, or any form of instability.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) links ACEs to an increased risk of mental health disorders, substance use, and chronic health problems in adolescence and adulthood, together with a strong and negative impact on their social interaction and function in today’s society.
Back in 1998, an important study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and it put the focus on the link between childhood abuse and household dysfunction and the leading causes of death in adults. The research was groundbreaking, showing a strong correlation between the two. Amongst these leading causes of death, cancer is high on the list.
20 years later, a systematic review of twelve important studies was performed which found that it’s clear that “childhood adversity in various forms may increase a person’s cancer risk.” Still, further research needs to be conducted to fully understand the mechanisms behind these correlations in order to prevent and mitigate the serious long-term effects on one’s adult health.
A more recent study from 2020, based on data from samples of 20 thousand people from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey – Mental Health (CCHS-MH) shows that women with adverse childhood experiences had a significantly higher association with a cancer diagnosis in adulthood.
Signs of Childhood Trauma
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports how children who are victims of trauma show a variety of reactions, with the most common being:
- Intense emotional upset
- Symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Often and sudden changes in behavior
- The inability of self-regulation or self-control
- Issues with bonding and social interactions
- Academic difficulties
- Nightmares and difficulties sleeping
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Violence, aggression, and problems with the law
- Self-harm and suicidal ideations
Children who have gone through traumatic experiences often have a variety of triggers that can severely interfere with their daily lives and their ability to function in a social context.
In adulthood, these long-term signs of childhood abuse may be prominent, but they may also be repressed, having to go through numerous psychotherapy sessions and potential even hypnotherapy just to start uncovering these traumatic experiences as well as their life-long triggers. Some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but although it’s very common in other kinds of trauma, it’s actually very rare in childhood trauma.
A big red flag when it comes to long-term consequences of childhood trauma shows up in attachment issues and problems with creating relationships and bonds between people. The problem usually stems from household trauma which prevents them from developing trust in people around them. This causes them to build walls and protect themselves from further harm by not allowing anyone in in the first place.
Another sign of childhood trauma comes in the form of emotional and behavioral responses that are completely unregulated and uncontrolled. They usually show up as anger, aggression, withdrawal, depression, or self-harm. They stem from coping with trauma and their way of expressing their emotions without the ability to control them. Unfortunately, inflicting harm upon oneself and suicide seem to be considerably higher in adults who have experienced childhood trauma.
The first step towards healing from your adverse childhood experiences is therapy. The therapist you choose needs to completely understand everything there is to know about childhood trauma, how it can impact an individual, and have empathy so you can build trust and share your experiences, no matter how painful they might be.
Therapy needs to unfold at your own pace, without deadlines or feelings like the therapist is pushing you. Progress isn’t linear and at times, you might feel like you’re taking a step back. You need to trust the process and trust your therapist in order to be able to start with the healing.
There are plenty of different ways to go about the healing process, some with actionable steps, and others simply allowing you to build it yourself through therapy sessions. What will work for you depends only on you and your situation, so it’s important to listen to the signs your body is telling you and trust that what you’re doing is for your own mental, emotional, and physical health.
Cancer and childhood trauma are definitely linked, and so is a plethora of other mental and physical diseases. Traumatic experiences, especially those stemming from your childhood can have long-term consequences that can severely impact your life all through adolescence and adulthood. If not dealt with, they could potentially be life-threatening, increasing cancer risk factors, causing mental illness, and developing a variety of chronic diseases.
It’s important to address your trauma and start the healing process before it causes irreparable damage and threatens your overall health and wellbeing.