October 06, 2014
2 min read

One-third of cancer patients experienced anxiety, mental health disorders

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About one in three patients with cancer experienced some level of clinically relevant mental health challenge, such as anxiety, depressive disorders or adjustment disorders, according to results of a multicenter German study.

Prior studies have demonstrated elevated levels of distress among patients with cancer. However, those studies varied in quality due to small sample sizes, disparate diagnostic criteria and assessment standards, and a disproportionate representation of patients with breast cancer, according to background information provided by researchers.

In the current study, Anja Mehnert, PhD, a professor of psychosocial oncology at the University of Leipzig in Germany, surveyed 2,141 patients with cancer (age range, 18 to 75 years) to assess the incidence of clinically meaningful mental health issues.

Anja Mehnert, PhD

Anja Mehnert

Researchers posed a series of standardized questions to participants during face-to-face interviews in hospitals, outpatient cancer care centers, and rehabilitation centers in Germany.

The questions assessed psychological symptoms over the previous 4-week period, and patient responses were entered into a computer based-diagnostic program.

Study participants exhibited a range of cancer types. The most common were breast cancer (44%), prostate cancer (15%) and colorectal cancer (14%). The average time since diagnosis was 13.5 months.

Results showed 32% of patients overall exhibited at least one clinically significant mental health disorder. By comparison, the estimated prevalence rate for the general population is 18% to 20%.

“These findings reinforce that, as doctors, we need to be very aware of signs and symptoms of mental and emotional distress,” Mehnert said in a press release. “We must encourage patients to seek evaluation, support and treatment if necessary, as there are long-term risks often associated with more severe, untreated mental health disorders. This research also sheds light on which patients we should watch more closely.”

In the four-week period preceding the survey, 11.5% of study participants experienced an anxiety disorder, results showed. Eleven percent of participants met criteria for an adjustment disorder, and 6.5% exhibited signs of a mood disorder, including as major depression.

The highest prevalence for mental health disorder was found among individuals with breast cancer (42%), head and neck cancers (41%), and malignant melanoma (39%). Those with prostate cancer (22%), stomach cancer (21%) and pancreatic cancer (20%) demonstrated the lowest prevalence of mental health disorders.

The prevalence of adjustment disorders, rarely assessed in surveys of the general population, may have significantly contributed to the overall higher incidence rate of mental disorders among patients with cancer, researchers wrote.

“We also 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,” Mehnert said.

Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.