Mental Health Issues in Cancer Patients Differed By Cancer Type

Breast cancer patients had highest rates of mental health issues compared to those with other cancers

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Living with cancer can be more than a physical battle. For some patients, the disease can be a mental challenge as well. It seems some types of cancers may be tied to a heavier mental burden than others.

A recent German study set out to identify rates of mental health issues among patients with various types of cancer. Many of the patients reported mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

The researchers found that patients with breast cancer had the highest rates of mental health issues compared to several other cancer types.

Angela Usher, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in the psychosocial care of cancer patients and their families, told dailyRx News that many studies show the psychological impact of cancer. "Patients experience a variety of affective states that are closely linked to their biologic stressors such as pain, digestive functioning and quality of sleep," she said.

"When I talk with patients, some of the most common things I want to know are: How well are they sleeping, are the in pain, and are they able to engage in pleasurable activities? These conditions have a significant impact on how well we function, cope and adjust to a chronic disease like cancer," said Usher, who was not involved in this study.

This German study, published in the Oct. 6 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, reported that mental disorders were most common among patients with breast cancer (42 percent), head and neck cancer (41 percent) and malignant melanoma (39 percent), a form of skin cancer.

Anja Mehnert, PhD, professor of psychosocial oncology at the University of Leipzig in Germany, and colleagues interviewed 2,141 patients between the ages of 18 and 75 at outpatient and inpatient cancer treatment centers.

Each patient received a survey assessing their mental health. Specific mental health issues were identified by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The American Psychiatric Association describes the DSM as the standard classification of mental disorders used by US mental health professionals.

The research showed that 32 percent of the 2,141 patients had experienced some form of mental or emotional distress during the four-week study. While anxiety and panic were common, the type of mental disorders varied depending on the patient's cancer diagnosis.

“These findings reinforce that, as doctors, we need to be very aware of signs and symptoms of mental and emotional distress. 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,” Dr. Mehnert said in a press release.

Usher told dailyRx News that adjustment disorder is one of the most common mental health issues she treats in cancer patients. Adjustment disorder, also known as situational depression, is a short-term condition where one is not able to cope with a significant life event, Usher explained. "It is common for the person to feel sad, lost, confused, overwhelmed, anxious, scared, angry, etc.," she said. "Once the person learns to adapt and cope, the symptoms go away."

Usher said that other common mental health issues among cancer patients include affective disorders — such as anxiety, depression and depression with anxiety — and somatic symptom disorder, which is marked by excessive thoughts, feelings or behaviors related to health concerns.

Dr. Mehnert and colleagues noted that the lower rates of mental health issues among patients with prostate cancer (22 percent), stomach cancer (21 percent) and pancreatic cancer (20 percent) were surprising because these cancers are typically more challenging to treat.

“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,” Dr. Mehnert said.

The study was funded by a grant from the German Cancer Aid. The authors reported no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
October 2, 2014
Last Updated:
October 10, 2014