How Breast Cancer Affects Mental Health

Breast cancer takes a heavy toll on the health of the American public. In 2019 it was estimated to be the fourth deadliest cancer in the US. Aside from its obvious physical problems, women who survive breast cancer tend to be more at risk of multiple mental health problems.

A Look at the Numbers

This was the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. For this effort, the authors cast a very wide net, reviewing the findings of sixty previous studies involving the health of women with a history of breast cancer.

Using this large amount of data, this report determined that such women had up to double the risk of experiencing anxiety. The rate at which the women developed anxiety varied based on the study in question. For studies that relied on electronic health records, the authors found that up to one in five breast cancer survivors had anxiety. In contrast, studies that relied on questionnaires reported a much higher figure, with up to half of respondents reporting this problem.

Depression was also a significant problem for breast cancer survivors, being twice as common in this group compared to women with no history of breast cancer. As with anxiety, the prevalence of depression differed greatly based on the study’s approach. Studies that used medical records found that one in ten women had depression following their cancer diagnosis. When questionnaires were used, nearly one in three women claimed to have depression.

Breast cancer also appeared to lead to problems with reasoning and clear thinking. Depending on the study, anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of breast cancer survivors suffered from memory impairment.

A Silver Lining

As troubling as these findings might appear, they may not be quite as bad as they initially seem. In an email exchange with the Reuters news service, Dr. Fremonta Meyer of the Dana-Farber Cancer Center in Boston stated that “several studies have shown that long term cancer survivors – more than five years from diagnosis – largely resemble the general population in terms of rates of mental health diagnoses. Therefore, breast cancer survivors should definitely remain hopeful that emotional symptoms will improve with more distance from their diagnosis.”

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