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06-20 The behavioral health effects of a cancer diagnosis

The behavioral health effects of a cancer diagnosis

It’s something that’s dwelled in the back of everyone’s mind at some point: a freckle that changed color, a sudden change in health, something unusual felt under the skin after a shower.

Cancer is a frightening disease, and not without reason: The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports 454.8 new cancer cases occur each year per 100,000 people, 171.2 of which are fatal. Almost 40 percent of men and women will receive a cancer diagnosis at one point in their lives.

In 2014, the NCI estimated nearly 16,000 children and adolescents were diagnosed with cancer, and 1,960 died of the disease.

That’s to say nothing of the costs of cancer treatment.

Despite the overall decrease in cancer death rates, it’s no surprise a recent study from researchers in Sweden found cancer diagnoses carried with them not only stress but a higher risk of other mental disorders – including substance abuse.

A stressful diagnosis

Researchers from Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute studied over 300,000 cancer patients as well as 3 million cancer-free Swedes who were selected at random. Data showed patients newly diagnosed with cancer had a greater risk of mental disorders that spiked during the first week after their initial diagnosis. The risk decreased after the first week, but stayed elevated for a decade later.

The researchers also discovered cancer patients had an increased use of psychiatric medications, which reached a peak three months after the cancer diagnosis. The use of the medications stayed elevated for two years after the initial diagnosis. Some of the disorders the patients were at increased risk for were:

Studies have shown a connection between stress and cancer diagnoses for years. In 2013, researchers from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom examined studies involving over 51,000 patients with a variety of cancers. The results showed nearly 18 percent of the patients dealt with anxiety two to 10 years after their diagnoses.

Some cancer patients can even experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after receiving a positive diagnosis for cancer. A study from 2011 published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology studied over 550 patients who survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma and found over a third of them had chronic PTSD. Another study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found a breast cancer diagnosis could create symptoms of PTSD in women.

Additionally, the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO) service provides a comprehensive guide for dealing with PTSD after a cancer diagnosis.

However, stress and PTSD aren’t the only mental conditions that can affect cancer patients.

Chemo brain

Most cancer patients receive chemotherapy at some point in their treatment. According to the ASCO, chemotherapy works by stopping the growth and division of cancer cells. Cancer cells grow and divide themselves at a faster rate than normal cells, so chemotherapy tends to destroy cancerous cells first.

Unfortunately, chemotherapy also comes with side effects. One of them is a cognitive effect the American Cancer Society (ACS) calls “chemo brain.” According to the ACS, some chemotherapy patients report mental cloudiness, forgetfulness, mental disorganization and memory problems. Fortunately, the ACS reports the condition can be managed with simple practices including following routines, getting enough sleep and engaging in physical activity. Even doing a simple mental task like Sudoku puzzles can help with chemo brain.

Managing post-diagnosis stress

Mayo Clinic recommends some stress-reducing tips for new cancer patients, which include:

  • Plan ahead for physical and mental changes due to treatment
  • Keep healthy habits – regular exercise and rest help
  • Stay informed about one’s condition – don’t be afraid to ask caregivers questions
  • Keep in contact with family and friends for support
  • Try to maintain a normal lifestyle

Stress is many things, but so far it hasn’t proven to be carcinogenic. However, the stress cancer causes can affect both the patient and those around them, such as children. Sovereign Health’s Rancho San Diego facility offers residential treatment for adolescents aged 12 to 17 who may be dealing with PTSD, anxiety or other mental disorders. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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