Mental Health May Play a Role in Cancer Survival

Chances are, nearly everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer. Survival rates tend to differ depending on what type of cancer a person has, as well as its stage of progression. That said, it’s generally acknowledged that the earlier the cancer is caught, the better the prognosis. Other factors may influence those odds, however — and one often overlooked influence is mental health.

Researchers from University College London and the University of Edinburgh recently examined how mental health might affect cancer survival by analyzing 16 studies that included 163,000 people.

The studies all involved people who were initially cancer-free and without other health issues. Their mental health was tracked throughout the life of the studies through standard psychological distress scores, a common way to examine changing mental health. During the ten year follow-up, there were 4,353 cancer-related deaths.

noticeable pattern 

Previous research has shown a possible link between poor mental health and a resulting decrease in survival rates for cancer patients, but these studies were often small and, therefore, less reliable than large-scale examinations of the data might be.

In this case, the researchers generally found that people who reported being the most distressed were 32 percent more likely to die by the end of the study than those who reported the best mental states. This pattern held true even after adjusting for age, sex, BMI, education and lifestyle factors, like smoking and alcohol consumption.

Dr. David Batty from University College London, lead author in this study, explained:

After statistical control for these factors, the results show that compared with people in the least distressed group, death rates in the most distressed group were consistently higher for cancer of the bowel, prostate, pancreas, and esophagus and for leukemia.

Researchers noted that a”reverse causality” effect could play a part in these findings, essentially meaning that people who had undiagnosed cancers and died early on in the study might have altered the findings.

To address this potential influence, the researchers embarked on another analysis to exclude those who died over the first five years of the follow-up period and ensure that these relatively rapid deaths were not altering the figures. Despite accounting for this factor, the trend remained.

Cancer and mental health, in perspective

It’s important to emphasize that this study, which was published in “BMJ” this month, didn’t aim to gauge whether “staying positive” could stave off death from cancer, as some reports have misleadingly suggested. Not only does this mischaracterize the research, it also sends a rather trivializing message about how profound mental health problems can be and the distress that cancer patients might feel around their diagnosis.

While it is true that some studies have linked depression and anxiety disorders to a greater likelihood of certain health problems, this study didn’t explore whether having a mental health problem predicted cancer survival itself. The researchers were only able to look at reported moods during the life of the study, from cancer diagnosis through to death or the study’s end. They did not examine particular mental health issues.

And although researchers tried to eliminate confounding factors, they couldn’t account for a possible link between mental health and diet. People experiencing poor mental health tend to have lower quality diets. Poor nutrition also tends to overlap with cancer diagnoses and may, in turn, affect survival.

Regardless, though, the researchers believe their study adds to a growing body of evidence that mental health during cancer treatment can be a key factor in increasing survival odds. For this reason, health advocates have continually stressed the importance of treating not just cancer itself, but also the mental health burden that accompanies the diagnosis for the patient, as well as the patient’s family and supporters.

Fortunately, there are many types of therapy that can help people in this situation. Countries like the U.S. and UK must ensure that these services can be provided in a timely and tailored way that can provide the most benefit.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Siyus C
Siyus C10 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

Marie W
Marie W11 months ago

Thank you for posting!

Chun Lai T
Chun Lai Tabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing

heather g
heather gabout a year ago

This doesn't seem to be a truly scientific study ..... unless I've misunderstood the stats

Leong S
Leong Sabout a year ago


Jess B
Jess Babout a year ago


Marija M
Marija Mabout a year ago

I am sure it does. tks for sharing.

Brett Cloud
Brett Cloudabout a year ago


Brett Cloud
Brett Cloudabout a year ago


Nang Hai C
Nang Hai Cabout a year ago