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12-16 The long-term psychosocial effects in adolescent cancer survivors

The long-term psychosocial effects in adolescent cancer survivors

Receiving a cancer diagnosis as a teen can be truly traumatizing in every aspect. Cancer takes a physical toll on the body, a mental toll on the mind and creates a whirlwind of stress around the patient and their loved ones. Therapy usually consists of a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation and those alone can be extremely taxing on the body. The side effects from   treatment medication commonly cause fatigue, nausea, vomiting, hair loss and can have a dramatic effect on the immune system. Although medical insurance may cover a majority of the treatment, most individuals are left buried in out of pocket medical expenses. These factors alone are enough to create severe psychosocial malfunctioning.

Fortunately, most cancer survivors are able to overcome these hurdles and live a happy life once the battle is fought and won; however, some survivors are diagnosed with depression, anxiety or other mental health disorder after completing treatment.

What comes after surviving cancer as a teen?

A study conducted at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, gathered parent reported data from adolescent cancer survivors from 1970-1999. They found four main symptom profiles:

  • Asymptomatic
  • Elevated anxiety and depression with social withdrawal
  • Elevated headstrong behavior and attention problems  
  • Headstrong behavior, attention problems, depression and anxiety

Additionally, findings were noted to be different in those who underwent cranial radiation therapy (CRT) versus those who did not. Cranial radiation therapy is often used to shrink brain tumors that are inoperable or need to be reduced in size before neurosurgery can be performed.

“Though many patients showed no significant increase in psychosocial effects at all, 31 percent of survivors who were treated with cranial radiation therapy (CRT) reported symptoms of depression, social withdrawal, peer conflict and attention problems, compared with just 16 percent of survivors who had other treatments. But when looking at the non-CRT group, about nine percent had increased comorbid symptoms including headstrong behavior and attention problems”, according to the study article.

The direct physical long-term effects of cancer also cause an increase in psychosocial functioning. Patients who were overweight or obese showed more signs of depression and anxiety than those of normal weight. Adolescents with physical disfigurements such as scars following surgery also showed an increase in externalizing symptoms such as displaying inappropriate behavior. Cancer related pain was also a factor for an increase in psychosocial problems compared to those who were living pain free.

Physical health problems such as cancer become worse if left untreated and therefore it is imperative to screen and treat individuals who are at risk for mental health disorders. Surviving cancer is a life altering experience that can result in severe, debilitating mental health symptoms following treatment. Although the cancer may be treated and the patient may be in remission; the effects of the experience can be life-long.

A battle with cancer can last months to years with multiple rounds of four hour chemotherapy treatments, radiation or surgeries, not to mention living with the fact that this disease may recur later in life. A cancer treatment team consists of multiple health professionals including oncologists, surgeons, primary care doctors, social workers and nurses but rarely do mental health professionals become involved in the initial process.

By receiving preemptive psychosocial counseling and support group therapy, cancer survivors may be more prepared to deal with the long-term mental effects of their illness and treatment.

Sovereign Health is a leading treatment group with locations across the United States that help treat people with addiction and mental health disorders. For more information, call the 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller M.D. is a medical writer at Sovereign Health Group and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting edge world of medicine. She is a physician author who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicals board education. She is an outdoors and dog enthusiast.  For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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