The best way to fight cancer could be to remain positive, according to the findings of a new study conducted by researchers at University College London, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Sydney.
Having reviewed 16 previous studies which looked at the link between mental distress and cancer, the researchers concluded that people who are depressed or anxious are far more likely to die from the disease.
In fact, overall, people who were struggling most with anxiety or low moods were, as a result, 32% more likely to die from their cancer.
For certain cancers, the relationship between anxiety/depression and cancer mortality was even more startling. For example, leukaemia sufferers were found to be four times more likely to die if they were anxious or depressed. Patients with prostate, pancreatic or oesophageal cancer were more than two times as likely to not survive.
Specifically, the most depressed people saw their risk of bowel cancer rise 84%, prostate 142%, pancreas 176%, throat 159% and leukaemia by 286%.
The university researchers analysed data relating to more than 160,000 individuals (men and women) aged 16 or over who were free from cancer when the study began.
At the end of the 10-year study, the results of which were published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), 4,353 people went on to die from cancer.
Dr David Batty, the report’s lead author from UCL, said: “The results show that compared with people in the least distressed group, death rates in the most distressed group were consistently higher for cancer of the bowel, prostate, pancreas and oesophagus and for leukaemia.”
The figures were adjusted to take into account factors such as age, sex, body mass index (BMI), educational attainment, smoking and alcohol consumption. The researchers also excluded individuals who died within five years. This was to avoid the possibility that people’s mental distress was caused by undiagnosed cancer.
The findings add to the growing body of evidence that psychological distress could have some predictive capacity for certain physical conditions.
Each year, more than 330,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer and around 160,000 die. According to Cancer Research UK, 41% of cancer cases are preventable.
Professor Peter Johnson, from Cancer Research UK, said: “This interesting study suggests a link between a person’s mental health and their risk of dying from cancer. But we need more research to see if this is really the case, or if anxiety and depression are linked to known cancer risks such as smoking, overweight and high alcohol intake.
“Better mental health may be another way in which we can reduce our risk of developing cancer, and this deserves serious attention.”
While studies like this can be worrying for people with mental health disorders and their families, it is important to remember that having anxiety or depression does not necessarily mean someone will go on to get or die from cancer.
Risk factors are complex, with our genes, lifestyles and environments all potentially playing a part. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation. For example, a person with a mental health disorder may make poorer choices when it comes to diet and exercise, increasing their risk of cancer as a result.
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