Every now and then, perhaps less than in the past but perhaps not, we hear that those who suffer from anxiety or depression are more likely to get cancer. Or, even, that prolonged stress or strong sorrow – for a bereavement, a separation, a big disappointment, a great worry – are precisely the cause of cancer. It’s not like that, at least not for one meta-analysis conducted on over 300 thousand people published on Cancer which showed that depression and anxiety are not linked to higher risks of getting most types of cancer.
An ancient suspicion
The relationship between psychological factors and oncological disease has been discussed for some time. The suspicion is that depression and anxiety (both very widespread globally) may increase the risk of getting cancer by influencing behaviors that have an impact on health, such as smoking or not doing physical activity. Or by directly exerting some biological effects that could favor the development of cancer. Over the years, some research has supported some association between depression, anxiety and the development of cancer, but some has not.
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The work published on Cancer includes information collected by the international PSY-CA (Psychosocial Factors and Cancer Incidence) Consortium relating to 18 cohorts of people from the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Norway and Canada, for a total of 320 thousand adults, including over a period of 26 years, there have been over 25,800 cancer diagnoses. By cross-referencing the data on the presence of anxiety and depression with oncological diagnoses, the authors demonstrated that there is no connection for tumors in general, for those of the breast, prostate, colorectal, nor for those directly associated with drug abuse. alcohol (oral cavity, esophagus or liver in particular). However, among anxious people and smokers they found a 6% increased risk of getting lung cancer. A low value which according to the researchers would be due not to psychological distress but to smoking, a habit that is difficult for anyone to abandon, but probably especially for anxious and depressed people. For the authors, therefore, the prevention of lung cancer must continue to involve actions that combat smoking, not anxiety and depression, which – they are keen to say – must certainly be prevented and treated, but not to avoid getting cancer.
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Anxiety and depression during illness
“This one up Cancer it is a work of great value, it is a good meta-analysis on a topic, the relationship between psychology and tumors, as heard by patients – he tells Oncoline Gabriella Pravettoni, who is director of the Psycho-oncology division of the IEO, European Institute of Oncology in Milan, and professor of Psycho-oncology at the University of Milan. “I am convinced – she says – that anxiety and depression cannot cause oncological disease, while I believe that once one has become ill they are able to influence adherence to oncological treatments. A person who is depressed or under severe stress treats himself worse, lets himself go: for example, smokes, or eats poorly, or undergoes checks less carefully. Well, yes, this can happen.”
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Anxiety and depression therefore have nothing to do with why we get sick, while they influence the attitude towards cancer treatment, that is, the history of the patient and his illness. “For this reason – Pravettoni is keen to say – as well as being able to find their own life plan, it is very important for patients to be able to access psycho-oncological support”.
A relief for patients
According to Lonneke A. van Tuijl, clinical psychologist and psycho-oncologist at the Center for Health Psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and first author of the publication, the study results “represent a relief for many cancer patients who believe that their diagnosis is attributable to previous states of anxiety or depression”, with related feelings of guilt. “It is true that there are people, and there are quite a few, who have the erroneous belief that in some way they themselves, or their psychological condition, are responsible for the disease – concludes Pravettoni – We have patients who believe they have cancer patients due to being depressed or very stressed, we also have those who associate the disease with events that happened in the past for which they feel guilty such as an interruption of pregnancy or betrayal. It’s as if there was logic behind a diagnosis. But is not so”.