A new study led by researchers from the University of Virginia School of Medicine has found that the mental health of breast cancer patients greatly impacts their ability to survive and their use of opioid drugs.
Lead researcher Rajesh Balkrishnan, Ph.D., of the University of Virginia, and his colleagues studied the cases of more than 10,000 women over the age of 65 who had stage I, II, or III breast cancer diagnoses. All the women were receiving adjuvant endocrine therapy to treat their cancer. The researchers separated those women into two groups based on whether or not they had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, and they found that those who did also used more opioids and had a lower survival rate than the mentally healthy women.
“The complex relationship among breast cancer, mental health problems, and the use of opioids is not well understood, and the results of this study provide clinicians the evidence they need to make optimal patient treatment-related decisions,” says Balkrishnan. “Our findings suggest that patients with breast cancer with mental health conditions have higher opioid use and reduced survival. These results highlight the need for healthcare providers to evaluate treatment goals and assess whether better concurrent management of breast cancer and mental health conditions is required.”
Too often, doctors focus on fixing the cancer itself but don’t take the patient’s wellbeing as a whole into consideration. This study shows that it’s vital for oncologists to pay attention to how their patients are feeling, not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Treating mental conditions like anxiety and depression could mean the difference between life and death for some and high or low quality of life for others.
Previous studies suggest that roughly 40 percent of breast cancer patients also suffer from a mental condition that could impact their ability to fight the disease and heal properly. The researchers suggest that these women should be offered “complementary forms of treatment for pain,” such as physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, acupuncture, acupressure, and massage.
“A need exists for collaborative care in the management of mental health comorbidities in women with breast cancer, which could improve symptoms, adherence to treatment, and recovery from these mental conditions,” says the study. “Mental health treatments also are recommended to be offered in primary care, which not only would be convenient for patients but also would reduce the stigma associated with treatments for mental health comorbidities and improve the patient-provider relationship.”
Limitations of this study include the researchers’ lack of knowledge about the opioids used and patients’ pain level assessments. The research may also be skewed by the underdiagnosis of many mental conditions.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?