Psychiatric disorders in oncology: recent therapeutic advances and new conceptual frameworks

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Purpose of review

Major advances achieved in anticancer treatment have resulted in significant increases in cancer patients’ survival periods. At the same time, growing awareness of the psychologic impact of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer on quality of life has created the need for deeper insights into the adjustment process, its disorders, and effective strategies for the treatment of psychiatric morbidity. The wider availability of brain imaging techniques and other neurobiologic tools is creating major opportunities for a scientific understanding of psychodynamic processes.

Recent findings

Several elements indicate a stress-system activation in response to cancer. The existence of traumatic stress-like syndromes has received increasing support. Structural brain imagery has revealed volumetric alterations of the amygdala, a major participant in emotional and fear responses. Hypotheses about functional modifications at the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis level may have significant implications for the identification, treatment, and even prevention of psychopathology. Finally, longitudinal studies assessing psychologic adjustment confirm the need for psychosocial and pharmacologic interventions.


Our understanding of the cancer experience at the emotional and cognitive levels remains insufficient, leading to weakly positive results of psychosocial intervention models. The use of antidepressant medication has received substantial empiric and scientific support, but a risk of antidepressant-induced carcinogenesis has not been excluded, which should keep clinicians from overprescribing attitudes. Finally, improving the quality of doctor-patient communication and the psychologic impact of carrying a genetic marker of cancer risk should be the focus of further attention.

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