Almost half of all women with early breast cancer experience depression or anxiety in their first year after diagnosis, reveals a study published in today’s (Saturday) British Medical Journal1.

The researchers conclude that more support for women with early stage breast cancer is essential.

The study, headed by Dr Caroline Burgess at Cancer Research UK’s London Psychosocial Group at King’s College London, looked at more than 200 women under 60 years of age with early stage breast cancer, and followed their progress over five years.

They found that in the first year after diagnosis, depression and anxiety are twice as common in women with early stage breast cancer compared with the general female population.

However, after the first year, women in remission have levels of depression and anxiety that are similar to the general female population.

The number of women experiencing depression and anxiety fell from 48 per cent in the first year to 15 per cent by the fifth year after diagnosis, which may reflect women adjusting to their diagnosis and treatment.

However, more women experienced depression and anxiety soon after their diagnosis of a relapse compared with women after an initial diagnosis.

There were 39 patients who had a recurrence within five years, and of these patients 45 per cent experienced depression within three months, compared with 36 per cent within three months of initial diagnosis.

The study also found that risk factors for depression and anxiety were related to individual circumstances rather than the extent of the disease or its treatment.

Younger women, those with previous psychological problems, those experiencing difficulties unrelated to cancer (such as relationship problems), and those with no one to confide in were more likely to develop depression and anxiety.

Professor Amanda Ramirez, director of the research group, says: “Our findings highlight the need for dedicated support for women with breast cancer, especially in the first year after diagnosis and around recurrence. Treatments for depression and anxiety need to take account of the individual circumstances in which breast cancer occurs, with an emphasis on improving social support”.

Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Cancer Information for Cancer Research UK says: “This study demonstrates the high prevalence of depression in the first year after diagnosis and following relapse. GPs and the cancer care team must be aware of this and refer their patients accordingly to counselling and support groups.”



  2. British Medical Journal330 pp.702-5

Over 40,700 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK. It is the commonest cancer in the UK (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer) and by far the most common cancer in women.

Anyone who has concerns about changes in their breast should see their GP.

Information on help and support organisations is available on Cancer Research UK’s patient information website, Cancer Help UK.