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According to the results of a study published in the journal Cancer, almost half of all women with newly diagnosed breast cancer experience significant emotional distress or a psychiatric disorder such as major depression.

Breast cancer is diagnosed in more than 200,000 women annually in the U.S. alone. Fortunately, cure rates remain high for women whose cancer is detected and treated early. Because more women are surviving breast cancer, long-term quality of life during and after treatment has become an important issue.

Common problems that can interfere with quality of life and the ability to function include emotional distress and depression. Although these problems are known to affect many women with breast cancer during and after cancer treatment, less is known about the impact they have on women even before cancer treatment begins.

To explore the psychological needs of women with newly diagnosed breast cancer, researchers at Dartmouth Medical School conducted a study among 236 women with Stage I to Stage III breast cancer.

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  • Moderate to severe distress was reported by 41% of the women.
  • 11% of women met the criteria for major depression. Although more than half of these women were already taking medication for their depression, they continued to experience significant symptoms. This suggests that depression may commonly be undertreated.
  • 10% of the women met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Overall, 47% of the women met the criteria for significant distress or a psychiatric disorder

The researchers conclude that distress and problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are common in women with newly diagnosed breast cancer. These problems can impair a woman’s ability to function, and improved screening to detect these problems is warranted.

The researchers also note that it’s important to inform women about the generally good prognosis of breast cancer. This may alleviate some of the distress that women experience at the time of their cancer diagnosis.

Reference: Hegel MT, Moore CP, Collins ED et al. Distress, Psychiatric Syndroms, and Impairment of Function in Women with Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer. Cancer. Early online publication November 13, 2006.

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