Cancer and Mental Health

August 19, 2022

A diagnosis of cancer is for many people, a major life event.  It is quite common for patients diagnosed with cancer to feel anxious, scared, and depressed.  According to Mental Health America (1), it is estimated that up to one-third of cancer patients treated in hospitals have a mental health condition.  Cancer affects not only the patient, but everyone around them; their families, friends, work colleagues, and caregivers.  Lifestyles and routines are disrupted and roles may change, resulting in distress for all involved.

It is becoming apparent that mental health plays an important role in the outcome of cancer treatments.  It has been found that having untreated mental health issues can result in worse outcomes, including survival. In one study of colorectal cancer survivors the authors found an increased risk of death for patients diagnosed with any mental health disorder (2).  Another study looked at 2.6 million patients with cancer and found that depression and anxiety were significantly associated with cancer-specific mortality and all-cause mortality (3).

There is also evidence that mental health may be associated with the incidence of cancers.  Stress causes physiological changes in the body that can affect the immune system and other processes, which may in turn lead to the development (or progression) of cancer.  A recent study that was presented at the 2022 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting showed that pancreas and Head & Neck cancer patients were significantly more likely to report a major stressful life event within the past 5 years compared to matched controls without cancer (4).  The authors conclude that stressful life events need to be recognized as risk factors for developing cancers.  Other authors have shown similar results (3, 5, 6).

It is therefore important for all people to avoid stress as much as possible throughout their lives and learn how to deal with stress when it inevitably arises.   For cancer patients especially, they must learn techniques to reduce stress so their cancer care is not compromised.  If commonly used stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, exercise, etc. aren’t working, then the patient should ask for professional help.  Some clinicians are calling for mental health screening for cancer patients to identify and treat any mental health problems before they can affect outcomes. Like many diseases, including cancer, mental health disorders are best treated when caught early.  If you feel you need help with your mental health, please contact your doctor.  You may also contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness at 800-950-6264 or visit


  1. Mental Health America:
  2. Lloyd S, Baraghoshi D, Tao R, Garrido-Laguna I, Gilcrease GW 3rd, Whisenant J, Weis JR, Scaife C, Pickron TB, Huang LC, Monroe MM, Abdelaziz S, Fraser AM, Smith KR, Deshmukh V, Newman M, Rowe KG, Snyder J, Samadder NJ, Hashibe M. Mental Health Disorders are More Common in Colorectal Cancer Survivors and Associated with Decreased Overall Survival. Am J Clin Oncol. 2019 Apr;42(4):355-362.
  3. Wang YH, Li JQ, Shi JF, Que JY, Liu JJ, Lappin JM, Leung J, Ravindran AV, Chen WQ, Qiao YL, Shi J, Lu L, Bao YP. Depression and anxiety in relation to cancer incidence and mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Mol Psychiatry. 2020 Jul;25(7):1487-1499
  4. Sridhar A, Nguyen CG, Abushalha K, Saghir I, Tahanan A, Rahbar M, Jafri S. Major Stressful Events and Risk of Developing Head/Neck and Pancreatic Cancer. J Clin Oncol 40, 2022 (suppl 16; abstr 12128):
  5. Tkachenko E, Singer S, Mostaghimi A, Hartman RI. Association of poor mental health and skin cancer development: a cross-sectional study of adults in the United States. Eur J Cancer Prev. 2020 Nov;29(6):520-522.
  6. Chida Y, Hamer M, Wardle J, Steptoe A. Do stress-related psychosocial factors contribute to cancer incidence and survival? Nat Clin Pract Oncol. 2008 Aug;5(8):466-75.

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