Health Team

Mobile app developed at Duke helping survivors battle 'cancer PTSD'

Posted July 6, 2017 5:15 p.m. EDT
Updated July 11, 2017 9:39 a.m. EDT

— Post-traumatic stress disorder isn't limited to veterans who suffer psychological scars from the battlefield.

Many cancer survivors have similar symptoms, but they are often less likely to get help.

Thanks to a Duke University Hospital doctor, there is now an app for that.

The app had a positive impact on 64-year-old Aguinita Aiken, who was diagnosed with breast cancer about three years ago.

Aiken's survival story is one of many on the Cancer Distress Coach mobile app.

Aiken said she first experienced panic attacks after she finished chemotherapy treatments.

"Fear is a terrible thing, because even now, I think, 'Is my cancer going to come back?'" she said.

Aiken was one of 31 participants in a Duke study to see if the app could help reduce PTSD symptoms of significant stress or anxiety.

Recently, Aiken was able to thank the app's creator, Dr. Sophia Smith, who works in the Duke School of Nursing. Smith is a two-time cancer survivor herself, and she said she also remembers lingering anxieties even after her cancer went into remission.

"It's actually more traumatic than when they are initially diagnosed, because nobody is doing anything any longer to keep the cancer away," Smith said.

The app includes several things that can help survivors, including breathing exercises and visualization techniques.

"You can visualize streams and oceans," Aiken said.

Users load in their favorite photos and music.

The app also points users to sources of support when they are in crisis. Duke's study proved the app is effective.

"About half of the survivors had clinically significant reductions in PTSD symptoms after only four weeks of app usage," Smith said.

Aiken says the beauty of the app is that it's always with her.

"All it did was transport me into a really good place," she said.

You can download "Cancer Distress" in the Apple or Google Play stores.