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Study highlights nurses’ role in tackling depression

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by Cancer Research UK | News

20 January 2004

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Even after lifesaving treatments, one out of every twelve cancer patients may be suffering from depression, according to a report published in the British Journal of Cancer1.

The study by Scottish researchers also suggests that the majority of these patients are not receiving effective treatment for their depression.

However, a second study by the same group and also published in the BJC suggests that the depression could be managed by a weekly appointment with a specially trained nurse.

The study was joint-funded by Cancer Research UK, the NHS Research and Development Programme and the Lothian University Hospital NHS Trust.

Lead researcher Dr Michael Sharpe, of the University of Edinburgh, says: “Depression is an important and neglected problem for cancer patients, even for those who have a good prognosis.

“Our research shows that over half of cancer patients who are suffering from major depression are being missed and even when the condition is diagnosed most patients are not being given effective treatment.”

The study involved screening over 5,000 patients using a two-stage process: initially the patients were asked to answer a short series of questions on a touch screen computer. These questionnaires were analysed to find out which patients may be suffering from depression.

These patients were then interviewed over the telephone by a specialist nurse to determine whether they were suffering from major depression.

The second study looked only at the patients who were depressed. Half of these received usual care from their cancer specialist and GP and half were offered additional weekly meetings with an oncology nurse for up to ten weeks.

The nurse helped the patient to take an active ‘problem solving’ approach to their troubles and encouraged them to consider taking antidepressant drugs.

The two groups were assessed again six months later and 40 percent fewer of the patients who had been seeing a nurse were still suffering from major depression.

Nurse Vanessa Strong of Cancer Research UK’s Psychological Medicine Research Group at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh was responsible for providing the treatment.

She says: “There’s a misconception among patients and doctors that depression is an acceptable side effect of cancer. Our research proves that in many cases depression can be tackled effectively.

“Together these two studies offer us a potential means for screening and treating depression in cancer patients.”


  1. British Journal of Cancer90 (2)

Note to editors:

Dr Sharpe, Vanessa Strong and a Cancer Research UK group are currently conducting a larger randomized study of the nurse delivered treatment in the Edinburgh Cancer Centre.