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Depressed head, neck cancer patients less likely to survive

Researchers are unsure whether poor lifestyle behaviors associated with depression or biological responses to depression-associated chronic inflammation affects the biology of cancer.

By Stephen Feller
While the effect of depression on cancer isn't clear, researchers said all patients should seek treatment for prolonged and elevated levels of depression. Photo by prudkov/Shutterstock
While the effect of depression on cancer isn't clear, researchers said all patients should seek treatment for prolonged and elevated levels of depression. Photo by prudkov/Shutterstock

HOUSTON, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Depressed head and neck cancer patients are less likely to survive the disease and more likely to have a recurrence of it, according to a new study conducted at the University of Texas.

Smoking also had a significant effect on whether cancer came back, researchers reported in the new study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, however depression was the only factor associated with survival rates.

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About 10,000 to 15,000 people are diagnossed with oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, or OSCC, which originates at the back of the throat and base of the tongue. Aside from smoking and drinking, HPV infection also is a significant risk factor for the cancer. Researchers said rising rates of HPV have contributed to increasing rates of the cancer.

The researchers are unsure whether poor lifestyle behaviors associated with depression or biological responses to depression-associated chronic inflammation affects cancer -- but the effects of depression were clear, they said.

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"The results of this study were quite intriguing, showing depression was a significant factor predicting survival at five years, even after controlling for commonly accepted prognostic factors," said Dr. Adam Garden, a professor of radiation oncology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, in a press release.

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Researchers followed 130 MD Anderson patients who were diagnosed with OSCC. At the beginning of radiation treatment, researchers asked the study participants to complete a questionnaire evaluating symptoms of depression. Each of the patients was then monitored, for a mean of five years, until their last visit to doctors at the MD Anderson or death.

Based on the surveys, patients identified as depressed were 3.5 times less likely to survive five years, compared to patients who were not depressed. The degree of depression also was important, as each unit increase on the depression scale increased the risk for reduced survival by 10 percent.

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Although smoking is associated with higher rates of recurrence, researchers said survival times were not impacted when considering for current alcohol and tobacco use or HPV infection status.

"Regardless of depression's impact on cancer outcome, all patients should seek help for prolonged and elevated levels of depression as effective medications and therapeutic options are available," said Dr. Eileen Shinn, an assistant professor of behavioral science at MD Anderson.

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