Oncology Central

One in five cancer patients experience PTSD after a diagnosis, study suggests

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A study, published recently in CANCER, has highlighted the number of cancer patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) both in the months following their diagnosis and years later. The findings highlight the need for early identification, careful monitoring and treatment of PTSD in cancer survivors.

In this study, researchers from the National University of Malaysia (Selangor, Malaysia) studied 469 adults with various cancer types within 1 month of diagnosis at a single oncology referral center. Patients underwent additional testing after six months and again after four years.

The team observed a 21.7% incidence of PTSD at the 6-month follow-up assessment, with rates dropping to 6.1% at the 4-year follow-up assessment. Although the overall rates of PTSD decreased with time, one-third of patients who were initially diagnosed still had persistent or worsening PTSD 4 years later.

“Many cancer patients believe they need to adopt a ‘warrior mentality’, and remain positive and optimistic from diagnosis through treatment to stand a better chance of beating their cancer. To these patients, seeking help for the emotional issues they face is akin to admitting weakness,” explain lead researcher Caryn Mei Hsien Chan from the National University of Malaysia. “There needs to be greater awareness that there is nothing wrong with getting help to manage the emotional upheaval–particularly depression, anxiety, and PTSD-post-cancer.”

Chan also stressed that many patients live in fear that their cancer may come back and they may think the cancer has returned with every lump or bump, pain or ache, fatigue or fever. In addition, survivors might skip visits to their oncologists or other physicians to avoid triggering memories of their past cancer experience. This can lead to delays in seeking help for new symptoms or even refusal of treatment for unrelated conditions.

Notably, the researchers discovered that patients with breast cancer (compared with those who had other types of cancer) were approximately 3.7 times less likely to develop PTSD at 6-months, but not at 4-years follow-up. A potential reason for this was that at the referral center studied, there is a dedicated program that provides support and counselling, focusing mostly on breast cancer patients within the first year of cancer diagnosis.

“We need psychological evaluation and support services for patients with cancer at an initial stage and at continued follows-up because psychological well-being and mental health…and by extension, quality of life – are just as important as physical health,” concluded Dr. Chan.

Sources: Chan CMH, Guan Ng C, Taib NA et al. Course and predictors of post-traumatic stress disorder in a cohort of psychologically distressed patients with cancer: A 4-year follow-up study Cancer doi: 10.1002/cncr.30980(2017); Eureka alert press release

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