First anxiety, afterwards depression: psychological distress in cancer patients at diagnosis and after medical treatment

Stress Health. 2012 Dec;28(5):362-7. doi: 10.1002/smi.2445. Epub 2012 Sep 13.


Objective: The purpose of this study was to assess psychosocial changes at two particular moments: at cancer diagnosis and 2-4 weeks after having finished treatment.

Material and methods: A total of 67 cancer outpatients were assessed in this study. The inclusion/exclusion criteria were as follows: ambulatory cancer patients aged 18 years or older and receiving medical treatment. Patients with a performance status <50 or with cognitive impairment (≥3 errors in the Pfeiffer Questionnaire) were excluded. The inclusion period ranged from 1 April 2005 to 30 April 2007. The scales used were the 14-item Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS), which has two subscales for anxiety (seven items) and for depression (seven items), the Quality of Life Short Form 36 Questionnaire, the Mental Adjustment Scale and the Medical Outcomes Study Questionnaire for measuring social support. All data were compared with sociodemographic and medical characteristics.

Results: Patients had higher levels of pre-treatment versus post-treatment anxiety (HADS-Anxiety mean, 7.41 versus 6.69), whereas depression scores were higher post-treatment versus pre-treatment (HADS-Depression mean, 3.14 versus 3.89). After medical treatment, patients were more fatigued, with lower performance status (Karnofsky Index), less social support and less quality of life, but no differences in coping styles were found. Women had higher levels of anxiety than men. Patients with psychiatric antecedents had higher levels of distress, but these differences were only observed after diagnosis and not after the treatment. In general, head and neck cancer patients had higher levels of distress, worse coping and worse social functioning.

Conclusions: Cancer patients require special consideration before and after treatment. Anxiety is the symptom that characterizes diagnosis, whereas depression is more common after medical treatment. The head and neck cancer patients were the group with the highest complexity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anxiety / diagnosis
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Depression / diagnosis
  • Depression / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Neoplasms / therapy
  • Psychometrics
  • Quality of Life / psychology*
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Support
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnosis
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires