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Study reveals better mental health for cancer survivors compared to group without cancer

RTI International and the National Cancer Institute assess trends in cancer survivors’ health-related quality of life  

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A new study authored by nonprofit research institute RTI International in partnership with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) examines mental health in cancer survivors. The research published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention finds that people who were diagnosed with cancer report higher mental health scores over time than people without a cancer diagnosis. The study explores the trends in health-related quality of life among Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 or older, comparing those diagnosed with cancer to those without cancer.  

A cancer diagnosis may have substantial, harmful effects on health-related quality of life. Using data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER)–Medicare Health Outcomes Survey (MHOS), the study retrospectively examines the quality of life of two populations—one with a diagnosis of cancer and one without—from a recent period (2015–2019) and from an earlier period (2008–2012).  

“We wanted to understand how reported scores may change over time; not just in isolation but relative to those without cancer,” said the study’s lead author Benjamin Allaire, director of the advanced methods development program at RTI. 

SEER-MHOS collects data on how many people get cancer and how long they live with it from cancer registries that cover 48% of the U.S. population. They also gather information from a random sample of people with Medicare Advantage.  

The researchers looked at data from people with cancer from 2008 to 2012 and compared their mental health to those without cancer. They found that during that time, cancer survivors felt mentally worse than older adults without a cancer diagnosis. However, from 2015 to 2019, cancer survivors reported feeling mentally better than those without cancer, especially individuals who had breast or lung cancer. But their physical health didn't change much during these years.  

“More research is needed to determine why the mental health scores were higher in the more recent period for those without cancer. One key factor may be recent, additional emphasis on mental health during the survivorship care phase for people with a history of cancer.” said Allaire.   

Read the full study