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After Cancer, Emotional Healing Remains
 Cancer Center Feature Story

After Cancer, Emotional Healing Remains
Depression and anxiety may afflict survivors long after treatment

After Cancer, Emotional Healing Remains(HealthDay News) --You might think that after beating cancer, nothing else could worry survivors.

But you would be wrong.

Researchers have found that the 12 million cancer survivors in the United States are more likely than others to suffer from anxiety and depression -- even a decade after their treatment ended.

To gauge the long-term psychological impact of cancer, researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston analyzed mental health and medical data on 4,636 adults who'd survived cancer and 122,220 who had never had the disease.

During a follow-up period of five to 12 years, nearly 6 percent of the cancer survivors were found to have experienced severe psychological distress, compared with 3 percent of those who never had cancer.

The findings are not surprising, said Kevin Stein, the American Cancer Society's director of quality-of-life research, because a cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy treatment can be among life's most trying experiences.

Cancer treatment causes fatigue, pain, nausea and vomiting, mouth sores and hair loss, and some symptoms can linger for years. "Chemotherapy is an effective treatment because it's toxic to the cancer cells, but sometimes it does collateral damage," Stein told HealthDay.

In addition to physical pain and discomfort, long, debilitating treatments can lead to losing jobs and changes in family roles and sexual intimacy. That alone would be enough to cause many people emotional stress, but survivors also may worry that the cancer will come back.

The researchers' findings, though not shocking, should lead to more screening for psychological distress in cancer survivors by primary-care physicians and oncologists, who can help people find the help they need, Stein said.

Treatments for clinical depression, which include medications, counseling, or a combination, have been shown to reduce suffering and improve a person's quality of life.

Symptoms of clinical depression include:

  • A sad or "empty" mood for most of the day.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities most of the time.
  • Feeling "slowed down" or restless and agitated nearly every day, enough so that others notice.
  • Trouble sleeping, which might include early waking, sleeping too much or not being able to sleep.
  • Trouble focusing thoughts, remembering or making decisions.
The American Cancer Society suggests that anyone worried that a friend or loved one who's survived cancer might be depressed should:
  • Encourage physical activity, especially mild exercise such as daily walks.
  • Engage the person in conversation and other activities once enjoyed.
  • Realize that negative thinking is a symptom of depression and should get better with treatment.
  • Encourage the person to get or continue treatment until symptoms improve. If there's been no improvement after several weeks, urge the person to talk to the doctor about a different treatment.

On the Web

To learn more about life after cancer, visit the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

SOURCES: HealthDay News; Kevin Stein, Ph.D., director, quality of life research, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; July 27, 2009, Archives of Internal Medicine; American Cancer Society (

Author: Dennis Thompson

Publication Date: July 31, 2010

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