Cancer treatment experiences among survivors of childhood sexual abuse: A qualitative investigation of triggers and reactions to cumulative trauma

Julie B Schnur, Matthew J Dillon, Rachel E Goldsmith, Guy H Montgomery
Palliative & Supportive Care 2018, 16 (6): 767-776

ABSTRACTObjective:Some 25% of women and 8% of men in the United States have experienced childhood sexual abuse (CSA) before the age of 18. For these individuals, healthcare visits and interactions can be retraumatizing due to perceived similarities to past abuse (e.g., pain, undressing, lack of control). However, no prior studies have provided formal qualitative analyses regarding CSA survivors' reactions to cancer treatment. Therefore, our study's objective was to identify key themes pertaining to CSA survivors' cancer treatment experiences.

METHOD: Male and female members of the Amazon Mechanical Turk (N = 159, mean age = 44.27 years, SD = 10.02) participated in an anonymous online survey study. The inclusion criteria included reporting: history of CSA; a diagnosis of colorectal, gynecological, breast, or skin cancer; and experience of triggers and/or difficulties during cancer treatment. Participants' responses to open-ended questions were analyzed using inductive thematic analysis.

RESULTS: We identified two primary themes describing CSA survivors' experiences: Theme 1: treatment-related triggers (key subthemes: procedure-related, provider-related, and emotional triggers); and Theme 2: questioning the meaning of cumulative trauma (e.g., "Why me again?").

SIGNIFICANCE OF RESULTS: For CSA survivors, cancer and its treatment can trigger thoughts and emotions associated with the original abuse as well as negative evaluations of themselves, the world, and their future. Our findings are consistent with past research on CSA survivors' experiences in non-cancer healthcare settings and add to the literature by highlighting their struggles during cancer treatment. The present results can inform further research on trauma survivors' reactions to cancer treatment and give cancer care providers the context they need to understand and sensitively serve a substantial yet often overlooked patient group.

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