Roanoke psychiatrist practices what she preaches when it comes to coping with cancer

ROANOKE (WSLS 10) – As a psychiatrist specializing in treating psychiatric disorders in women, particularly during pregnancy and as an OB/GYN, Dr. Jennifer Wells works with a number of women, including those dealing with cancer.

“Especially as our population ages,” she explained. “It becomes increasingly more common that I have patients who might have come to me for a different reason and end up having to deal with a cancer diagnosis.”

She knows the anxiety that can come with a diagnosis.

In fact, a 2016 study published in the journal Psycho-Oncology found that a large majority of women with breast cancer, more than 80 percent, developed symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder after diagnosis.

“We generally look at post dramatic stress disorder as a disorder that develops after a threat to your life and it involves a great deal of anxiety and triggers flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, hyper-avoidance,” she explained.

While an actual diagnosis of PTSD is rare in such cases, knowing symptoms like poor sleep, loss of appetite, nightmares or flashbacks to the diagnosis or the inability to think of anything else can appear, could help women get the help or support they might need.

“The cornerstone to many anxiety treatments is therapy, is support. And so I do want someone to get that kind of help as well.”

Ironically, the psychiatrist offering support to others discovered her own lump during a self breast exam. Just two weeks ago, Wells herself was diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer.

“I will say I do think denial is a healthy thing at this point,” Wells laughed. “I haven’t done that much. I’ve been poked and prodded. I’ve had my boobs squished and things being stuck in you. You don’t know until you get there how bad it’s going to be and that’s probably a really good thing. People will tell you and you’re like OK all right that sounds good I’ll lose my hair and I won’t be able to taste and I’ll be chronically nauseous and totally fatigued, awesome,” she joked. “You just have to find your way through.”

According to the website, breastcancer.org, what separates “normal” stress from PTSD symptoms is PTSD symptoms last longer than a month and severely affect your daily life.

Symptoms include:

  • Nightmares or flashbacks about the cancer experience
  • Continuously focusing on the cancer experience
  • Extreme irritability
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Loss of appetite
  • Self-destructive behavior (alcohol or drug abuse, for example)
  • Being startled or frightening easily
  • Hallucinations
  • Memory problems
  • Concentration problems

Wells said she always leans toward the positive and relying on her humor and meditation.

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“I pulled out all my books and my inspirational sayings and I’m really like I do believe it comes back down to humility and faith and sort of thinking that the university has a higher organizing system and I’m not aware of what it is,” she said.

She knows there may be moments where she will, in effect, have to practice what she preaches.

“I just really want to encourage people if they’re suffering if they’re scared, if they’re anxious of cancer or something that has come into your life like it has come into mine, get help. Find help. Whatever realm it is you seek — in your church, your gym, your friends, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a support group. There are lots of different strategies and techniques for learning to cope with this and you don’t have to do it alone.”

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