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Birkbeck study finds that the COVID-19 outbreak could have an adverse impact on the psychological health of women with breast cancer

Research reveals that the COVID-19 lockdown disrupted the treatment of women with breast cancer, significantly affecting their mental health

This is a photo of an anxious woman

A new study by researchers at Birkbeck, University of London of women diagnosed with breast cancer has found that disruption to their treatment, and the redirection of services to COVID-19 patients, has had a significant negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

The researchers believe that this could have implications for the long-term outcomes of these women and they are asking for services such as Adaptive Cognitive Training, an online resource that has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression related symptoms in women with breast cancer, to be put in place to help support them to build their emotional resilience.

The research, led by Dr. Jessica Swainston and Bethany Chapman, was based on a series of online surveys with 234 women diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, which assessed their mental health and wellbeing after lockdown and after receiving their screening letter. The outcomes revealed that disruption to cancer treatment services had a significant negative effect on those awaiting treatment, with many reporting higher levels of emotional vulnerability, anxiety and depression. Up to 40% of women with breast cancer can experience clinical levels of anxiety and depression; with alarming rates of post-traumatic stress symptoms for years after diagnosis. 

Professor Nazanin Derakhshan, founder of Birkbeck’s Centre for Building Resilience in Breast Cancer (BRiC)  who supervised the research, said: "This study is the first to evidence the effects on patients’ mental health of the disruption to cancer services caused by the response to COVID-19.

“Women with breast cancer are known to be at a heightened risk of developing mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, loss of confidence, worry and fear about their conditions, so it is perhaps not surprising that these feelings can intensify if their treatment is affected.

“The delays to treatment that many experienced because of the need to shield and the movement of resources away from cancer services to focus on treating patients with COVID-19, increased levels of anxiety and depression among these women. This can have longer lasting effects on their recovery, so we would like to see urgent action to put in place immediately to protect them and ensure that they have the best possible outcomes."

The research, which was authored by Dr Jessica Swainston; Bethany Chapman; Professor Beth Grunfeld; and Professor Nazanin Derakshan from Birkbeck’s Centre for Building resilience in Breast Cancer, aimed to understand the impact of disrupted scheduled oncology treatments and the official letter about shielding sent to people who were considered to be clinically vulnerable from the effects of COVID-19.  It is published in Frontiers of Psychology – Psycho-Oncology.

Dr Jessica Swainston: “This study provides us with some important lessons for future pandemics. It is really important that preparedness plans prioritise the development and implementation of accessible eHealth solutions, psychological treatments or ‘interventions’ that can be delivered in accessible ways such as online, for vulnerable populations.”

Bethany Chapman: “The COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown in the UK has not only had debilitating effects on diagnosis and treatment for women affected by breast cancer, but has further added to the psychological distress so often experienced by these women.”

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