An Australian expert has warned that anxiety disorder among cancer patients tends to be ignored by physicians, with serious consequences for the patients.
Speaking at the Clinical Oncological Society of Australia's (COSA) Annual Scientific Meeting at Melbourne today, psycho-oncologist Jane Fletcher urged health professionals to keep a close eye on recently diagnosed cancer patients to see if they showed signs of anxiety or distress. She felt that many patients were not having their emotional health assessed and treated.
One in four cancer patients have an anxiety disorder and a small number have more serious conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. But some patients are too embarrassed to come forward, and so it was for the doctor to be alert to psychological distress being undergone by them. The problem can be treated with measures such as cognitive behaviour therapy.
In the absence of intervention, patients' conditions could escalate rapidly from general anxiety to more serious issues, including panic attacks.
"There is a lot of under-reporting, unmet need and high levels of morbidity. The impact [of anxiety disorders] on cancer patients and their family members can be significant and long-term.
"Unfortunately, we don't have the clinical culture or training to readily identify and intervene early enough.
"Without encouragement and support from health professionals, patients won't raise issues and tend to think anxiety is something they just have to put up with.
"But we need oncologists, GPs and other health professionals to be more adept at noticing when their patients exhibit signs of anxiety or distress and to take appropriate action," she said.
At the conference it was also stressed that staying active and maintaining a positive outlook played an important but often overlooked role in combating cancer.
Regular exercise after treatment for breast cancer, for example, reduces the risk of a recurrence and has been described as "perhaps as important as treating the disease".
"Cancer survivors are often motivated to have a healthier lifestyle, but many do not carry out their good intentions," said Annabel Pollard, a researcher at the Melbourne-based Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
"... Enabling cancer survivors to recover or improve their health after cancer treatment is perhaps as important as treating the disease."
Ms Pollard presented data from a pilot study of a12-week program for breast cancer patients intended to boost their level of exercise.
Ms Pollard said women who went through the program were found to be more likely to increase their physical activity - and so their recovery prospects - than the conventional approach of providing written advice on the merits of exercise.
COSA President Professor Bruce Mann said the research showed how doctors needed to be "aware of signs of anxiety or depression" in their cancer patients, and help them to get appropriate treatment.
"Physical activity is not usually high on the list of priorities for patients, but we should be encouraging and supporting them to undertake structured programs," Prof Mann also said.