Dictionary Series - Health: cancer
October 31, 2012

Type of Cancer Impacts Mental and Physical Health Following Diagnosis

Connie K. Ho for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Researchers recently discovered that some cancer survivors have been in poorer health the years following the diagnosis of the disease, as opposed to other cancer survivors.

In total, 25 percent of cancer survivors have poor physical health while 10 percent have poor metal health; people who have not been diagnosed with cancer have 10 percent poor physical health and 6 percent poor mental health.

"We did not have a good sense of how cancer survivors across the United States were faring after their cancer diagnosis and immediate treatment," noted Kathryn E. Weaver, an assistant professor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, in a prepared statement. "We set out to address this issue by estimating the number and percent of cancer survivors in the United States with poor physical and mental health and compared them to adults who have never had a cancer diagnosis."

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the CDC collaborated on the project and studied data from the 2010 National Health interview Survey, which was conducted by the CDC to look at trends in illness and disability throughout the United States. Through the study, they were able to determine a cohort of 1,822 cancer survivors and compare their results with a group of 24,804 adults who had previously not been diagnosed with cancer.

"This information should help doctors and researchers identify groups of survivors who may be at risk for long-term problems after cancer. In addition, it can help us know if some of the national efforts to improve life for cancer survivors are making a difference," explained Weaver in the statement.

A 10-item Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System Global Health Scale (PROMIS Global 10) was used to report on patient health-related quality of life. As well, the scientists were able to track health factors such as depression, fatigue, pain and physical functioning. Following adjustment for elements like race/ethnicity, education, gender and other medical qualities, they discovered that the most recent form of cancer an individual was diagnosed with correlated strongly to the quality of life. For example, those who survived breast cancer, melanoma or prostate cancer had a health-associated quality of life that was equal or better than individuals who had not been diagnosed with cancer.

However, those who suffered from blood, colorectal or cervical cancer as well as those who survived cancers that had only a five-year survival rate were reported to have worse physical health-associated quality of life. Furthermore, those who survived cervical cancer or cancers with a five-year survival rate had a worse mental-health quality of life. Overall, the researchers determined that approximately 3.3 million cancer survivors in the United States reported a below-average physical health quality of life, while nearly 1.4 million people have a lower than average mental-health related quality of life.

"It is very concerning that there are a substantial number of cancer survivors who experience poor mental or physical health years after cancer," continued Weaver in the statement. "Our results will serve as a baseline so that in five to 10 years, we can assess whether current approaches to improving the health and well-being of cancer survivors are having a positive effect."

The researchers believe that the study is important in highlighting life for cancer patients following diagnosis and treatment.

"I also hope our data will draw attention to the ongoing needs of cancer survivors – particularly those with cervical, blood and less common cancers – and to the importance of monitoring these individuals, even long after their cancer diagnosis," commented Weaver in the statement.

The study also provides a way for physicians to better communicate with their patients in terms of long-term needs.

"Recently, there has been a strong push for doctors to do a better job of communicating with cancer patients about what to expect as they finish treatment and transition to the survivor period," concluded Weaver in the statement. "Identifying what symptoms or problems cancer patients are facing after treatment — fatigue, pain, depression, sleep and cognition problems — and connecting them with the right resources or treatments is key to improving their long-term health."

The results of the study were recently published in Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal affiliated with the American Association for Cancer Research.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supported the study.