Study looks at link between cancer, anxiety

It appears lung cancer patients with anxiety and depression die sooner, according to a study by a team of researchers that included Dr. Rob Olson from the Northern Medical Program and the BC Cancer Agency of the North.

The study, published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, is one of the first to explore a possible link between mental health and the survival rates of lung cancer patients.

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The findings build on a previous study that looked at breast cancer patients, which offers scientists a greater understanding of the psycho-social factors on survival rates. A further study will soon be done on prostate cancer patients.

During the study, 684 patients undergoing treatment at the Vancouver and Surrey BC Cancer Agencies were followed. All patients were recently diagnosed with stage three non-small cell lung cancer, a common lung cancer with a low survival rate of only 30 to 46 per cent after one year.

"The question of whether anxiety and depression affect survival in cancer patients has been of interest to scientists for decades, but long-term research has been limited," said Andrea Vodermaier, the study's lead author and postdoctoral research fellow in the UBC department of psychology. "Our study confirms that there is indeed a link for lung cancer patients, and that it's important for healthcare providers to treat not only their tumour but also focus on the full emotional experience of the patient."

During the study, patients completed a questionnaire that asked about anxiety and depression symptoms.

Researchers found people experiencing those symptoms died sooner. The study took in factors like age, sex, ethnicity, type of tumour and treatment.

The effect was small but because there were so many people in the study, researchers were able to document it and that made the study significant.

Although the research shows a link between anxiety and depression and lung cancer survival rates, the findings cannot assess whether high anxiety or depression directly caused worse outcomes, said Olson, a senior author of the research paper.

"It is likely that other unmeasured factors that correlate with high anxiety and depression, such as less social support, could play a role," he said. "However, the relationship that we found is significant, and certainly worth further exploration into whether interventions to improve anxiety and depression in lung cancer patients can improve survival rates."

Within the study, there is no data provided on whether patients kept smoking after diagnosis. It is a known fact that a significant amount of people with lung cancer keep smoking or fail in attempts to quit and that could also affect their level of anxiety or depression, said researchers.

The study was co-authored by UBC psychology professor Wolfgang Linden and Dr. Sarah Lucas at the BC Cancer Agency.

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