New Study Examines Reaction and Adaption in People with Cancer

Cancer can be a devastating event in anyone’s life. The shock of receiving a diagnosis, regardless of the prognosis, can cause psychological distress. Many people experience a range of emotions, from fear, anger and grief to anxiety and depression. The mental health of a cancer survivor goes through ups and downs as the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery take place. Frank J. Infurna of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University recently examined this trajectory with relation to depressive symptoms. Infurna looked at how cancer affected symptoms of depression and cognitive functioning following diagnosis and two years later.

For his study, Infurna assessed 2,848 individuals over the age of 50 who had received a diagnosis of cancer while they were participating in a larger study focused on retirement and health. Their levels of depression were evaluated prior to diagnosis and twice after—once during the reaction period which represented the first 23 months after diagnosis, and again during the adaption phase which was measured 24 months after diagnosis. The results revealed that depressive symptoms increased quite dramatically in the reaction phase, and then rose moderately during the adaption phase. Although the participants varied slightly in their results, a clear pattern emerged. Specifically, participants with better memory and better cancer prognoses had smaller increases in depressive symptoms than those with poorer cognitive skills and less favorable cancer outcomes.

Infurna also compared the individuals with cancer to a sample of 2,272 participants who never got cancer to further confirm his results. Overall, the findings showed that when people experience a major life event such as cancer diagnosis, they go through phases of psychological adjustment. This study demonstrated that factors such as mental acuity and physical health outlook affected adjustment, but future work should look at other things that could influence well-being, such as family support and self-esteem. Regardless, the findings shed light on unique adjustment trajectories. “In sum, experiencing a cancer diagnosis challenges the self-regulation system and results in a reduction of mental health (reaction),” Infurna said. Adaption is the process that ensues post-diagnosis and enables people to adjust, if only partially, to their new circumstances.

Infurna, F. J., Gerstorf, D., Ram, N. (2012). The nature and correlates of change in depressive symptoms with cancer diagnosis: reaction and adaptation. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029775

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  • Blake L

    October 8th, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    It’s kind of like it could go one of two ways- you can either get all depressed and woe is me, or you can turn it into a real life changer, a time to evaluate the things in life that are important to you and really discover who you are and the life you want to live.
    Of course you will go thru phases of osychological adjustment- think about what a whammy this is going to place on you and your family. But most of us have the inner strength that we don’t even know about that can help us to get thru this.
    It is a real life changer, that much is for sure. But it is not insurmountable and I think that if you take ot for the learning opportunity that it can be you can come out of this stronger than you have ever been before.

  • Lila

    October 8th, 2012 at 5:39 PM

    Not sure why this is a shocker?
    I would be more depressed if I did n’t know how to deal and had a less than favorable prognosis too.

  • mike

    October 8th, 2012 at 11:39 PM

    its not for no reason that they say disorders can be a bigger battle in the mind than even the body.there is a lot happening in one’s mind after a cancer diagnosis because it has the potential to become something life-changing.such incidents are not too many but when they do come they can have a major impact on our life and thereby our mental health too.

  • Chris F

    October 9th, 2012 at 4:00 AM

    Something that would be very helpful would be to get family involved more in the recovery and healing process. Isn’t it noce when you have someone to lean on? Don’t you think that the numerous cancer patients currently in treatment feel the same?

    Give the family the resources and tools that they need to help a loved one cycle through the recovery process a little easier.

  • lacey

    October 9th, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    I found that when my own mom had cancer, one of the best things that I could do for her was to simply listen to her.

    I think that a lot of times she felt like we all just wanted her to shake it off and pretend like everything was alright. She felt like we didn’t need the burden of having to listen to her and deal with her fears.

    But for me that wasn’t true at all. I wanted to be there for her, listen to her, not to necessarily offer advice but just to be there for me when I felt like she neede me the most.

  • Gray

    October 10th, 2012 at 3:14 PM

    It would be terribly difficult to face a cancer diagnosis that is quite grim without feeling like all is lost. You start to think abotu how young you are, what your family will do without you and what the actual process of potentially dying will be like and I am sure that most of us would be very inclined toward becoming depressed when faced with a situation like this. I am normally an upbeat person, but if I heard my doctor say that I was facing cancer and that this was going to be a real challenge to beat, I am not certain that I could at all remain positive for the duration. What I do know though is that if he told me this was beatble than I would fight like hell to beat this thing. So how about maybe doctors should examine a little more closely how they phrase the diagnosis to their patients and perhaps just a simple change in the wording could be very meaningful to some patients.

  • Veronica

    October 11th, 2012 at 4:24 AM

    Now more than ever could be the wake up call for oncologists and other medical doctors to heed the cry that patients need far more then just physical care when they receive a diagnosis for cancer or for any other disease that may be terminal or that could have such a huge impact on their lives. Why not enlist others who can offer these patients resources for coping and strategies for improving their overall health instead of simply continuing to dole out the prescription meds? I know that we need more of a holistic approach to health and recovery, but I think that this is a major piece that many medical providers fail to see.

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