Cancer survivors are more likely than their healthy peers to suffer serious psychological distress such as depression, even a decade after treatment ends.
According to a study published in the July 27, 2009 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, those who were relatively young at the time of diagnosis, unmarried, had less than a high school education, were uninsured, had other illnesses or had difficulty doing the activities of daily living were at the highest risk of psychological problems.
The United States is home to 12 million cancer survivors, or 4 percent of the population, numbers that are expected to rise as cancer screening improves and Baby Boomers age, according to the researchers, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
To gauge the long-term psychological impact of the disease, they analyzed mental health and medical data on some 4,600 adults who’d survived cancer and over 122,000 who had never had cancer. The data was collected between 2002 and 2006 by the National Health Interview Survey, which is conducted yearly by the U.S. Census Bureau.
During a follow-up period of at least five years and an average of 12 years, about 5.6 percent of cancer survivors were found to have experienced severe psychological distress within the previous month, compared with 3 percent of those without cancer.
Those who are younger, single, have less education and no insurance may suffer more because they have fewer resources to draw from to get through it. Getting a diagnosis of cancer and going through chemotherapy can be among life’s most trying experiences, said a spokesperson from the American Cancer Society.
The physical and emotional fallout of cancer treatment, including fatigue, pain, nausea and vomiting, mouth sores and hair loss, can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. While many of these symptoms may subside or disappear after treatment ends, some, including fatigue, can linger for months or years.
Chemotherapy can also cause delayed problems that aren’t apparent until months or years later, including peripheral neuropathy (nerve pain or numbness), infertility, organ dysfunction, hearing loss, muscle atrophy and cardiovascular disease.
In the study, 9 percent of long-term cancer survivors and 6 percent of individuals without cancer reported seeing or talking to a mental health professional within the previous year. One-third of cancer survivors with serious psychological distress reported using mental health services, while 18 percent said they could not afford mental health care.