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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