Cancer Patients at High Risk for Mental Disorders Before, After Diagnosis

While it’s no great secret that cancer treatments can take a toll on people physically and psychologically, a new study has shed light on the risks posed before and immediately after diagnosis. Researchers, in fact, found that mental disorder risks may begin to increase as much as a year prior to diagnosis with spikes found during the diagnostic process.

The study that casts light on the link between mental disorders and cancer involved an analysis of patient data collected between 2001 and 2010. Researchers looked at more than 304,000 people diagnosed with cancer during that time frame. They also pulled data related to more than 3 million people who were cancer-free during the study period. The analysis excluded anyone who had a prior psychiatric comorbidity within two years before their cancer diagnosis. For each study-qualified cancer patient, researchers paired them with 10 randomly selected cancer-free patients based on sex and birth year.

All told, researchers found nearly 3,400 patients presented with a diagnosed mental disorder within a year prior to their diagnosis. Another 10,000 patients presented with a newly diagnosed mental disorder in the period following the cancer diagnosis. The increased risk for mental disorders began to rise about 10 months before patients were diagnosed with cancer and reached a peak point immediately after diagnosis. Women, researchers noted, were more likely to present with mental disorder symptoms. Disorders researchers took into account included depression, substance abuse, anxiety and stress reaction disorder, among others.

Researchers also noted increases in the use of psychiatric medications within the month immediately before diagnosis. Medication use peaked around three months after diagnosis and remained increased through two years after diagnosis. The most common forms of cancer diagnosed that presented with increases in medication use were lung, central nervous system and advanced forms of cancer at diagnosis.

Although more research needs to be performed to better understand the spikes during the pre-diagnosis period, researchers have some theories. They suspect that early cancer symptoms, such as anemia, may play a role in creating psychiatric stressors.

The study’s findings, researchers say, cast a light on the importance of monitoring patients more closely for the development of mental disorders during the diagnostic and treatment phases. The increased incident rate uncovered shows the need for vigilance to begin even during the initial diagnostic workup.

It is estimated that more than 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with a non-skin cancer form of this disease in the coming year. Patients who are undergoing diagnostic procedures or who have already received a diagnosis are urged to talk to their doctors about all symptoms that arise.

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