According to a recent study1, coping with cancer is linked to a higher risk of certain mental health conditions and an increased reliance on psychiatric medications. In honor of breast cancer awareness, we are highlighting this study.

Living and dealing with a diagnosis of cancer can cause severe psychological and emotional stress. It is common for people coping with cancer to have co-existing psychiatric conditions.

The authors of this study examined changes in risk having to do with some common and likely stress-related mental disorders, such as anxiety, depression, somatoform/conversion disorder, stress reaction/adjustment disorder and substance abuse, from the time of the cancer diagnosis through the post diagnosis phase.

There were 304,118 patients included in the study who were coping with cancer along with over 3,000,000 people who were randomly chosen out of the Swedish population and who were cancer-free for comparison.

The study showed there was an increase in the risk of some mental health conditions that started 10 months prior to being diagnosed with cancer and then peaked throughout that first week of being diagnosed and then went down afterwards, although the risk stayed higher when looked at 10 years after being diagnosed.

The patients’ reliance on psychiatric medications in coping with cancer was also examined to evaluate milder mental health symptoms and conditions. The authors said among patients with cancer there was an increase in the use of these medications starting one month prior to diagnosis, which peaked at around three months after being diagnosed and was still higher two years after being diagnosed.

These findings support the guidelines that currently exist of incorporating psychological treatment in with cancer care. It also recommends vigilance in looking for for multiple mental disorders when the patient starts undergoing their cancer diagnostic workup.

Cancer is among the most common illnesses linked with depression and an elevated risk of suicide. The National Cancer Institute has specifically said cancers of the lungs, throat and mouth are risk factors that can lead to suicidal behaviors. Although the risk of suicide is at the highest in the first several months after being diagnosed, the risk remains higher during the first 5 years of dealing with the disease. Coping with cancer can cause the patient to be frightened, not so much about death, but more about how the disease is perhaps perceived and managed and this fear can precipitate suicidal behaviors. The side effects and consequences of receiving treatment can also lead to psychological issues.

Exhaustion and/fatigue are among the most common side effects experienced from cancer treatments. These too can raise the risk of suicidal behaviors. Additionally, anxiety and depression are common among cancer patients. Approximately 63% to 85% of cancer patients who take their lives meet the criteria for anxiety, major depression and cognitive disorder. Whether being diagnosed with the disease triggers these mental conditions, happen as a result of the disease, or are a negative side effect of treatment, it just isn’t clear. What is clear is that those coping with cancer are definitely at a higher risk for psychological disorders and suicide.

  1. Donghao Lu, Therese M. L. Andersson, Katja Fall, Christina M. Hultman, Kamila Czene, Unnur Valdimarsdóttir, Fang Fang. Clinical Diagnosis of Mental Disorders Immediately Before and After Cancer Diagnosis. JAMA Oncology, 2016; DOI: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2016.0483