Utah researchers find patients with specific cancer at higher risk for mental health issues

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SALT LAKE CITY — New research out of the Huntsman Cancer Institute reveals that Hodgkin lymphoma patients and survivors are more likely to suffer from mental health and substance abuse disorders than the general population. The lead researcher sees this as a call to action for mental health support.

Researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute found that people with Hodgkin lymphoma were at higher risk for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide and self-inflicted injuries.

A Hodgkin lymphoma survivor from Rock Springs, Wyoming, said she’s felt a lot of that.

“I was diagnosed May 5, 2020,” said Gretchen Baldwin, who found out she had Hodgkin lymphoma early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When I got diagnosed, I felt like I had a really good outlook on it. I was like, it’s either going to be me, or I’m going to beat it,” she said.

But, in the course of six months of chemotherapy, followed by remission, her mental outlook deteriorated.

“There was just a lot of emotions, a lot of depression and just being really sad,” she said.

Fighting cancer during the pandemic made it worse. “I felt like I was on my deathbed just in my room all the time,” Baldwin said.

The study published this week in Cancer shows Baldwin is not alone.

“It typically affects patients who are younger,” Dr. Randa Tao said. Tao is the lead researcher, and an associate professor of radiation oncology at Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah School of Medicine.

When her team started the study, they did not think they would find more mental health issues because Hodgkin lymphoma patients typically survive.

“It’s considered one of the most curable cancers,” Tao said.

New research out of the Huntsman Cancer Institute reveals that Hodgkin lymphoma patients and survivors are more likely to suffer from mental health and substance abuse disorders than the general population. (Photo: Gretchen Baldwin)

But even patients free of cancer had more diagnoses than the general population for anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide.

“Suddenly they’re hit with this major diagnosis, and it can be such an interrupting event in their lives,” she said.

Tao said this topic needs more research.

“This is an important first step showing that this is also a problem in addition to all of the physical effects of treatment,” the researcher said. “It makes us as physicians … more aware of the overall big picture of psychosocial well-being of patients in addition to all of the physical effects that we focus on.”

Baldwin has seen a therapist and has taken some medication. But she still feels anxious that her cancer may return.

“I feel like I still have a lot of mental health issues. I have a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression,” Baldwin said.

Dr. Tao said physicians can use this information to help patients like Baldwin understand that this is an appropriate response to what they’re going through with cancer.

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call 988 to connect with the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline/p>

Crisis Hotlines

  • Huntsman Mental Health Institute Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • SafeUT Crisis Line: 833-372-3388
  • 988 Suicide and Crisis LifeLine at 988
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources

Warning signs of suicide

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.

Information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

What to do if you see warning signs of suicide

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

Information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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Jed Boal

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