High Anxiety About Being Cancer-Free

Cancer fears constant for many longtime cancer survivors

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The depression that may accompany a potentially life-threatening disease often disappears when a cancer patient's illness goes into remission. But, instead of being depressed, many long-term cancer survivors develop anxiety over whether the illness will return, a new study says.

Those who were alive for at least two years after their cancer diagnosis were 27 percent more likely than healthy people to struggle with anxiety, researchers said.

"Get treated for cancer-related anxiety."

Alex Mitchell, MD, of Leicester Royal Infirmary’s Department of Cancer Studies & Molecular in Leicester, United Kingdom, was the study’s lead author.

This study analyzed 43 prior two-year studies of depression and anxiety among cancer patients and among their spouses.

Among roughly 49,000 long-term survivors, almost 18 percent suffered from anxiety. By comparison, anxiety disorders were reported by approximately 14 percent of 226,500 non-cancer patients reviewed for the study.

The researchers also measured depression among a pool of roughly 51,400 cancer survivors, concluding that 11.6 percent had struggled with that disorder. By comparison, in a pool of roughly 218,000 healthy people, 10.2 percent had been diagnosed with depression.

The researchers defined long-term survivors as people who were still alive two years after their diagnoses. Relapses of cancer tended to occur during those initial two years, the researchers wrote.

“This kind of health anxiety most probably results from the proliferation of reactive, anticipatory thought patterns based around the fear of a return of the cancer and the associated treatment programs,” said Peter Strong, PhD, of the Boulder Center for Mindfulness Therapy in Boulder, CO. “Unlike anxiety, depression is usually associated with self-directed, negative thinking, low self-esteem and self-worth and guilt, which are atypical for [many] cancer [patients.]”

In a press release from The Lancet Oncology, Dr. Mitchell said, “Depression is an important problem after cancer but it tends to improve within two years of a diagnosis unless there is a further complication. Anxiety is less predictable and is a cause for concern even 10 years after a diagnosis. However, detection of anxiety has been overlooked compared with screening for distress or depression."

According to the researchers, “Efforts should be made to improve recognition and treatment of anxiety in long-term cancer survivors and their spouses."

Over the last two decades, cancer survival rates have increased substantially, the researchers wrote. Currently, roughly 70 percent of cancer patients have survived five years beyond their diagnosis, they wrote.

In addition to the mental state of cancer patients, the researchers also investigated the mental well-being of patients's spouses. Depression and anxiety among people married to cancer survivors roughly equaled levels of depression and anxiety among their chronically ill spouses, the researchers wrote.

Their study was published June 4 in The Lancet Oncology.

The researchers reported that no outside funders paid for their investigation.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 2, 2013
Last Updated:
August 7, 2013