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Childhood trauma and later life cancer

Events in childhood influence profoundly how we cope with poor health as adults.  Now, a new study shows that those who experienced childhood trauma are more likely to have advanced cancer in later life.

Among individuals with head and neck cancer, those who experienced childhood trauma were more likely to have advanced cancer, to have higher alcohol consumption, and to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the findings indicate that childhood trauma history should be considered during treatment for head and neck cancers.


Stress, anxiety and depression

Individuals may experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression during and after cancer diagnosis and treatment.  Because human social interaction and emotional expression depend largely on the structural and functional integrity of the head and neck region, the diagnosis and treatment of HNC have a significant psychological impact.

Patients with such cancers may display emotional responses that affect their adherence to treatment, and the persistence of smoking and alcoholism.

Traumatic events in childhood have also been linked with the occurrence of anxiety and depression in adulthood. To evaluate the occurrence of childhood trauma in HNC patients and its association with anxiety and depression, a team led by Dr Daniel Bernabé, of São Paulo State University, in Brazil, analyzed information on 110 patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma after they were diagnosed but before they started treatment.

Emotional neglect in childhood

Among the 110 patients, 105 (95.5 percent) had experienced at least one type of childhood trauma. The most common childhood trauma reported was emotional neglect (43.8 percent), followed by physical child abuse (30.5 percent), emotional child abuse (15.2 percent), and physical child neglect (8.6 percent). Only two patients (1.9 percent) reported sexual abuse.

Emotional neglect (absence of emotional support, as well as negligence related to child’s complaints) was linked with advanced cancer stage and higher alcohol consumption. Experiencing child physical neglect (not receiving necessary care so that physical health is endangered) was a predictive factor for increased anxiety levels. Also, patients who had a higher occurrence of traumatic events in childhood had an almost 12-times higher likelihood of having increased depression levels before starting cancer treatment.

Importance of life-history

Other studies have also reported that emotional neglect and abuse are associated with high levels of fatigue, stress, and depressive symptoms and worse quality of life in patients with breast cancer. 

Emotional neglect have been positively associated with high fatigue levels in patients with breast cancer, and has been found to be predictive of a negative adjustment to cancer. 

Dr. Bernabé says that assessing traumatic events experienced in childhood may be of great value in understanding neuropsychological mechanisms related to alcohol abuse and anxiety and depression symptoms in patients with cancer.
Therefore, the life history of the cancer patient, including their traumatic memories and derived feelings should be considered by the health team during the treatment of cancer patients.

How we feel about ourselves is an important ingredient of recovery and of coping with all problems in life, and not the least of these is our health and well-being.

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