Individuals with pancreatic cancer are more likely to experience depression than other cancer patients. In fact, scientists have been well aware of this correlation since the 1930s, when numerous psychiatric symptoms were found to precede or accompany the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer — specifically depression, anxiety and a sense of impending doom. Since this discovery, numerous researchers have investigated why pancreatic cancer is so closely linked to depression.
The research associating depression with pancreatic cancer has spanned decades.
In 1967, scientists examined over 100 patients who were admitted to the hospital for possible colon or pancreatic cancer. These scientists found that 76 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer had psychological symptoms that preceded their physical symptoms. Some of these psychological symptoms emerged as early as 43 months prior to the physical cancer symptoms. In contrast, only 17 percent of patients with colon cancer had psychological symptoms prior to physical symptoms.
In 1986, a group of researchers observed that patients with advanced pancreatic cancer had more severe depression, anxiety and overall mood disturbances when compared to patients with other forms of advanced abdominal tumors.
In 1994, scientists observed that individuals with pancreatic cancer often demonstrate a phenomenon known as depressive pseudodementia, or mild cognitive impairments commonly associated with depression, such as difficulties with concentration and memory.
In 1995, researchers concluded that increasing pain levels in pancreatic cancer patients were correlated with increased depression. In other words, people with pancreatic cancer who experience more pain also experience more depression.
In 1998, researchers found that the level of fatigue associated with cancer correlated significantly with depression levels.
In 2004, Mary Jane Massie, M.D., performed an extensive review of the scientific literature to determine which forms of cancer were associated with clinical depression. According to this review, the prevalence of depression in individuals with pancreatic cancer ranges from 33 to 50 percent.
Why is depression linked to pancreatic cancer?
Although extensive evidence strongly supports a link between depression and pancreatic cancer, scientists still aren’t sure why that link exists.
The answer might lie in the immune system. When people have cancer, their body suffers from immune system dysregulation. Inflammation runs rampant, impacting not only the cells in the body, but in the brain as well. Researchers have found that cytokines — or small proteins that are produced by immune cells — can have a direct effect on brain mechanisms by altering neuronal processes or an indirect effect by altering brain chemistry. This immune system response may result in behavioral changes that mimic major depression.
It’s also possible that depression itself increases the risk of developing cancer. This is because depression impairs cell-mediated immunity, hindering the body’s natural defense against illness.
What this means
Depression is closely linked to pancreatic cancer. So what does this mean?
As scientists begin to more clearly understand the link between these two illnesses, they may be able to provide more effective interventions. For instance, if scientists find that depression increases the risk of pancreatic cancer, clinicians can monitor individuals with depression more regularly with the hope of catching and treating the cancer earlier. If scientists find that pancreatic cancer increases the risk of depression due to immune system dysregulation, then researchers can attempt to craft medications to decrease this inflammation.
Scientists have one more question to answer: Why is depression more associated with pancreatic cancer than other forms of cancers? Even though scientists have investigated this question for the last 75 years, finding the answer still eludes them.
Sovereign Health Group uses customized, evidence-based treatment to help each patient with his or her unique challenges. Prior to treatment, our patients receive a thorough assessment that can include psychiatric evaluations and neurofeedback to identify — and ultimately treat — any underlying medical conditions. We offer individualized treatment plans, cognitive testing and rehabilitation, individual and group therapy sessions, and many other treatment components. For more information, please contact 888-530-4614.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer