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Protecting against depression in metastatic breast cancer

Research shows younger women suffering increased levels of post-traumatic stress.

This is a photo of a breast cancer patient receiving support
credit: Ivan Samkov

A new study from The Centre for Building Resilience in Breast Cancer (BRiC) at Birkbeck, University of London has demonstrated that social support and good cognitive health can protect against depression in metastatic breast cancer.

The research also finds that being of younger age (34-50 years) and having poorer cognitive function is met with increased levels of post-traumatic stress in this population. The study, using a sample of 59 women over the past year, is the first to examine the link between cognitive function and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress in metastatic breast cancer patients. 

It is believed that around 30% of women with a primary diagnosis of breast cancer go on to develop metastatic breast cancer, also known as secondary breast cancer or stage IV breast cancer, which refers to the spread of breast cancer to other organs such as liver, bone, brain, or lungs, rendering the cancer incurable.  Recent research shows that depression can escalate cancer progression and increase the risk of cancer specific mortality by 30% in breast cancer (Wang et al., 2020).

Despite this evidence, there is little to hardly any research that addresses the emotional and cognitive needs of women with metastatic breast cancer leaving them highly underrepresented in research.

In the current study, women with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer completed a series of online questionnaires and cognitive tests to measure symptoms of anxiety, depression and cognitive function. The results, published in the journal Psycho-Oncology, demonstrated that younger women who reported poorer levels of cognitive functioning were at greatest risk of increased post-traumatic stress symptoms.

When looking at the role of social support, the authors found that the combined effect of social support and good cognitive function could protect against depression symptoms in metastatic breast cancer patients.

“These findings call for an urgent need into the psychological well-being of metastatic breast cancer patients and can have significant implications for future interventions designed for women with metastatic breast cancer”, says Anna Dobretsova, an MSc student who conducted the research. “We now know that social support together with cognitive function are key factors to target and that women without a social support network can be particularly vulnerable, as higher levels of depression have been linked to increased mortality and cancer progression”.

Professor Nazanin Derakhshan, founder of the Centre for Building Resilience in Breast Cancer, who supervised the research, said, “It is time to address the needs of younger women with breast cancer and empower women with interventions that promote better cognitive function and reduce anxiety and depressive vulnerability. Our research has shown that resilience-based interventions such as cognitive training, mindfulness and breathing exercises can help but it is the combined effects of social support and good cognitive health that can buffer against depression in metastatic breast cancer patients.”

Further Information

Find out more about the Birkbeck Centre for Building Resilience in Breast Cancer (BRiC).

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