Cancer can take serious toll on emotions as well as body

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 15, 2014.

Vickie Young Wen, who has stage 4 cancer and is waging her own "I Want More Than A Pink Ribbon" campaign, poses for a portrait at her home in Sunnyvale, CA, October 10, 2014. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle
Vickie Young Wen, who has stage 4 cancer and is waging her own “I Want More Than A Pink Ribbon” campaign, poses for a portrait at her home in Sunnyvale, CA, October 10, 2014. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle

A new study confirms what many cancer patients and their loved ones already know: The disease takes a serious emotional toll as well as a physical one.

German researchers interviewed more than 2,100 cancer patients and found that, in the four weeks before the interview, almost 1 in 3 experienced a clinically significant level of depression, anxiety or other mental health problem, including adjustment and mood disorders and substance abuse.

Mental health troubles varied by type of cancer, with breast cancer and head and neck cancer patients being the most likely to suffer them, and pancreatic and stomach cancer patients being the least likely. The scientists said this surprised them because pancreatic and stomach cancer are more challenging to treat than breast cancer.

The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, and scientists say the German findings can probably be generalized to the U.S. because the two countries have similar mental health diagnosis rates.

Dr. David Spiegel works with cancer patients in his role as medical director of Stanford’s Center for Integrative Medicine. He was not involved in the study but said, though the findings may seem obvious, it’s been only a few decades since doctors started viewing patients’ emotional distress as something they could treat, and not just “an unwelcome side effect of having cancer.”

He urges cancer patients to seek mental health care, which can come in the form of a traditional support group or counseling, or a class like yoga, music, art or meditation.

“Some people think that admitting you’re sad or fearful is like giving up, and that’s just not true,” Spiegel said. “Depression is treatable, but if you don’t talk about it, then you’re just alone with your fears.”

Here are the numbers:

18 to 20%

The percentage range of the general German population that has a clinically relevant mental health issue. Similarly, the National Institutes of Health reports mental and emotional disorders affect 19 percent of American adults.

42%

The percentage of breast cancer patients in the study who had received a psychological or emotional diagnosis. Head and neck cancer patients and malignant melanoma patients followed with 41 percent and 39 percent, respectively.

20%

The percentage of pancreatic cancer patients who were diagnosed with a mental health problem, making it the cancer least associated with the issue. Stomach and esophageal cancer patients were next at 21 percent and then prostate cancer patients at 22 percent.

32%

The percentage of cancer patients who had experienced a clinically significant mental or emotional health challenge in the four weeks before being interviewed.