Breast Cancer Diagnosis Brings Serious Distress

But too often, cancer's emotional toll is undertreated, research shows

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TUESDAY, Nov. 14, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly half of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer undergo clinically significant emotional distress or symptoms of psychiatric disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), new research shows.

In many cases, the women's psychological troubles aren't noted by doctors or aren't adequately treated, the study authors added.

The study included 236 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer who had not yet started cancer treatment.

Forty-seven percent underwent significant distress following their diagnosis, the U.S. team found. The most common problem was moderate to severe emotional distress (41 percent). The most commonly cited sources for that distress were the cancer diagnosis (100 percent), uncertainty about treatment (96 percent), and worries about physical problems (81 percent).

The researchers also found that 21 percent of the women met criteria for psychiatric disorders, including major depression (11 percent) and PTSD (10 percent). These disorders were linked to major declines in the women's daily functioning.

Many of the women with depression were already taking antidepressants but continued to have significant depression symptoms. This suggests that even when they're identified as being depressed, newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients may be undertreated, the study authors said.

"This study has at least two important implications," researcher Mark T. Hegel, of the department of psychiatry and the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire, said in a prepared statement.

"First, we need to do a better job of getting the word out about how well we can treat breast cancer," he said. "These emotional disorders are almost certainly due in part to the fear and helplessness that continues to result from receiving a cancer diagnosis. Second, we need to assess for and provide adequate intervention for the women meeting criteria for these severe but very treatable psychiatric conditions."

More information

Breastcancer.org offers advice on dealing with breast cancer fears.

SOURCE: John Wiley & Sons Inc., news release, Nov. 13, 2006

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