Why Mental Health Must Step Up To The Advances In Cancer Risk Screening
Physical and mental health are two sides of the same coin when it comes to preventive healthcare.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 22, 2023
Knowing that you have an increased risk of developing cancer can either be a heavy burden to carry or a piece of valuable information that can help you live a healthy and meaningful life.
A recent narrative review published in Medicine analyzed several studies on the psychological benefits and challenges encountered by those who are screened for various types of cancer and found that there is evidence of both negative and positive mental health outcomes.
To understand an individual's experience when they undergo genetic testing for cancer, I recently spoke to Jo Bhakdi of Quantgene, an AI-assisted genomic and biotechnology company that aims to protect human life by detecting cancers and other diseases before they become untreatable.
Here are two important things I learned about the connection between mental health and genetic testing from our conversation.
#1. Mental health screening is part of the process
Bhakdi explains that mental health professionals play a crucial role in helping patients understand the implications of cancer and disease screening, genetics, mental health, and anxiety. For one, they can work with healthcare providers to ensure that patients are not subjected to unnecessary anxiety-inducing procedures.
A study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that realizing one is at risk of cancer can cause an individual to develop symptoms of anxiety. A mental health provider can help the individual absorb the information in a safe and balanced manner, while working on their concerns and emotional needs. Mental health support may also be needed immediately after the screening process, as people who find that they are at risk of cancer are likely to experience symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"By identifying individuals with a tendency towards anxiety and other mental health conditions, precautions are taken to ensure their emotional well-being throughout the screening process," said Bhakdi.
While not everyone may view the screening result as a net positive, according to Bhakdi, many people who use their service have a positive reaction to it.
"In the case of one patient, there was a more than 50% chance that this individual would develop colon cancer in their lifetime," said Bhakdi. "They were elated to have more information about their health because it helped them address the risk early on."
If one has a long-term approach to health and wellness, relief is the likely outcome, as evidenced by a 2020 study published in Familial Cancer that reported long-term psychological benefits of pancreatic cancer screening in high-risk patients. The study, which used validated psychological measures, showed that participants experienced no negative impact of screening in the short term, and positive benefits appeared one year after the screening, irrespective of the result.
#2. Minimizing ambiguity can help with well-being
Living with an undetected risk of cancer can lead to health complications in the future. Thanks to technological advances, genetic screening now has a diminished risk of false positives, which appears to be driving mainstream adoption rates.
"Simply providing clarity without any action is insufficient," said Bhakdi. "We need to offer a complete solution that removes the risk and provides peace of mind. Having a plan and knowing how to fight against what one fears is a potent weapon against anxiety. Successfully coping with the risks is a key factor in motivating people to take action."
According to Bhakdi, this can be achieved via a patient service system that guides physicians who may not be trained in genomics and addresses the various problems in the medical system that contribute to anxiety.
A study published in Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that anxious people tend to overestimate their own risk. This can lead to patterns of rumination that can negatively impact an individual's quality of life.
When it comes to life-threatening conditions like cancer, anxious individuals are better off discovering the truth about their genetic code (chances are that they are healthy and unlikely to develop cancer). This can provide a sense of relief and ease the distress they may otherwise experience. And, if the screening reveals that there is a potential risk, a team of expert healthcare providers can attend to the individual's physiological and psychological needs.
Bhakdi also maintains that genetic screening is most valuable when it is a continuous process and one that you enter into with a plan.
"What you want to do is introduce a frequency of screenings into your life," said Bhakdi. "By implementing the appropriate frequency of screenings using the right tools, you can systematically suppress the area on the risk curve. Additionally, you should go into genetic screening with a plan, list out the doctors you can call for a follow up appointment should you need to do additional testing or should something be flagged. The better prepared you are to take action, the less anxiety you will have going into it."
It is also important that you understand the financial, medical, and social implications of genetic screening and make an independent decision based on your own circumstances, such as:
- Affordability. Cancer risk screening can be an expensive investment. You must independently assess the affordability of a diagnostics provider before making a decision.
- Accuracy and reliability. The possibility of false positives and false negatives is remote but present. It's essential that we understand this and treat our results as indicative and not definitive.
- Social implications. Some individuals face discrimination based on their genetic risk factors, such as difficulty obtaining insurance coverage. Also, communicating a potential risk for cancer with your family and friends must be approached with care.
If you are considering genetic screening, speaking to both a health professional and a mental health professional can help you make an informed decision about whether genetic screening is right for you.
Diagnostics providers are waking up to the need to guide a patient throughout their fight against cancer. The onus is on the healthcare team, including mental health professionals, to educate a person about their options and collaboratively create a long-term plan to fight the possibility of a cancer risk while minimizing any distress they may experience.