Study Shows that Anxiety, Depression, and Emotional Distress Are Common for People With Cancer

October 7, 2014
Amber Bauer, ASCO staff

Sitting in the doctor’s office and hearing the word cancer is one of many people’s biggest fears, and everything that comes after a cancer diagnosis can be one of the most scary and stressful experiences in a person’s life. Different people deal with these intense emotions in different ways, but for some, these feelings interfere with daily life.

According to a study published yesterday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO), one in three people with cancer (32%) experiences anxiety, depression, or an adjustment disorder.  An adjustment disorder includes feelings of distress or stress in response to a major life change, such as a cancer diagnosis. These challenges were most common among women with breast cancer (42%), followed by people with head and neck cancer (41%) and melanoma (39%). They were least common among patients with prostate cancer (22%), stomach/esophageal cancers (21%), and pancreatic cancer (20%). On average, about 18% to 20% of people without cancer experience these emotional or mental health challenges.

"We have always assumed that the diagnosis of cancer is hard on our patients, but these findings indicate how common these feelings may be,” said ASCO expert Don S. Dizon, MD, a specialist in medical gynecologic oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. “It’s important that our patients be aware of just how common distress is and that help managing a challenging situation is available for them and their families."

There are a number of ways the health care team can help manage anxiety, depression, and other emotional challenges. Depending on your situation, your doctor may refer you to supportive care services available at your institution, group therapy, or a mental health professional, such as a licensed counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Some studies have shown that even just five to 10 hours of counseling can be beneficial. Medication, relaxation techniques, and other psychological treatments are also available to help manage symptoms.

“We want to reassure patients who are struggling that they are not alone or unique and that these mental and emotional challenges can be temporary, especially with effective psychological support or state-of-the-art mental health treatment,” said Anja Mehnert, PhD, lead author of the JCO study and a professor of psychosocial oncology at the University of Leipzig in Germany.