Nearly 1 in 4 women (23%) with newly diagnosed breast cancer reported symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) shortly after diagnosis. The risk was increased among black and Asian women by more than 50%.

“This study is one of the first to evaluate the course of PTSD after a diagnosis of breast cancer,” said lead author Alfred I. Neugut, MD, PhD, of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.

“We analyzed interview responses from more than 1,100 women,” said Neugut. “During the first 2 to 3 months after diagnosis, nearly a quarter of them met the criteria for PTSD, although the symptoms declined during the next 3 months. Younger women were more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD, and data suggest Asian and black women are at a more than 50% higher risk than white women.”

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The 1,139 research participants were part of the Breast Cancer Quality of Care Study (BQUAL). Between 2006 and 2010, women with newly diagnosed breast cancer, stages I to III, older than 20 years were recruited from NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center and Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City; the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit; and Kaiser-Permanente in northern California. Each participant completed three phone interviews. The first was 2 to 3 months after diagnosis and before the third chemotherapy cycle, if the patient was receiving chemotherapy. The second interview was 4 months after diagnosis, and the third was 6 months after diagnosis.

“The ultimate outcome of this research is to find ways to improve the quality of patients’ lives,” said Neugut. “If we can identify potential risk factors for PTSD, when women are diagnosed with breast cancer, we could provide early prevention and intervention to minimize PTSD symptoms. This approach might also have an indirect impact on the observed racial disparity in breast cancer survival.”

The research team believes that these findings may apply to patients with other cancer diagnoses as well. Neugut noted that in previous research, symptoms of PTSD have been reported following prostate cancer and lymphoma diagnoses.

This research was published in Journal of the National Cancer Institute (2013; doi:10.1093/jnci/djt024).