Knowing that you have an increased risk of developing cancer can be either a heavy burden to bear or valuable information that can help you live a healthy and meaningful life.
A recent narrative review published in Medicine analyzed several studies of the psychological benefits and challenges faced by those who are screened for various types of cancer and found that there is evidence of both negative and positive mental health outcomes.
To understand an individual’s experience when undergoing genetic testing for cancer, I recently spoke to Jo Bhakdi of Quantgene, an AI-powered genomics and biotech company that aims to protect human life. by detecting cancers and other diseases before they become incurable.
Here are two important things I learned about the link between mental health and genetic testing during our conversation.
#1. Mental health screening is part of the process
Bhakdi explains that mental health professionals play a crucial role in helping patients understand the implications of cancer and disease screening, genetics, mental health and anxiety. For one thing, they can work with health care providers to ensure that patients aren’t subjected to unnecessary anxiety-provoking procedures.
A study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that realizing that one is at risk for cancer can cause a person to develop symptoms of anxiety. A mental health provider can help the person process the information in a safe and balanced way, while working on their emotional concerns and needs. Mental health support may also be needed immediately after the screening process, as people who find out they are at risk for cancer are likely to show symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In identifying people with a tendency to anxiety and other mental health issues, care is taken to ensure their emotional well-being throughout the screening process,” Bhakdi said.
Although not everyone sees the screening result as a net positive, according to Bhakdi, many people who use their service react positively to it.
“In the case of one patient, there was a greater than 50% chance that this individual would develop colon cancer in their lifetime,” Bhakdi said. “They were excited to have more information about their health because it helped them deal with the risk early on.”
If one takes a long-term approach to health and wellness, relief is the likely outcome, as evidenced by a 2020 study published in Familial cancer who reported long-term psychological benefits of pancreatic cancer screening in high-risk patients. The study, which used validated psychological measures, showed that participants felt no negative impact from screening in the short term and that positive benefits appeared one year after screening, regardless of the outcome.
#2. Minimizing ambiguity can help with well-being
Living with an undetected cancer risk can lead to health complications in the future. Thanks to advances in technology, genetic testing now has a reduced risk of false positives, which appears to be boosting adoption rates among the general public.
“It is not enough to provide clarity without any action,” Bhakdi said. “We need to provide a complete solution that removes risk and provides peace of mind. Having a plan and knowing how to fight what you fear is a powerful weapon against anxiety. Successfully coping with risks is a key factor in motivating people to act.
According to Bhakdi, this can be achieved through a patient service system that guides doctors who may not be trained in genomics and addresses the various issues in the medical system that contribute to anxiety.
A study published in Advances in Behavioral Research and Therapy found that people with anxiety tend to overestimate their own risk. This can lead to rumination patterns which can negatively impact an individual’s quality of life.
When it comes to life-threatening conditions like cancer, anxious people better find out the truth about their genetic code (chances are they’re healthy and unlikely to develop cancer) . This can provide a sense of relief and lessen any distress they might otherwise feel. And, if screening reveals that there is a potential risk, a team of healthcare experts can address the physiological and psychological needs of the individual.
Bhakdi also argues that genetic testing is most valuable when it’s an ongoing process and you commit to a plan.
“What you want to do is introduce a frequency of screenings into your life,” Bhakdi said. “By implementing the appropriate frequency of screenings using the right tools, you can systematically remove the area on the risk curve. Additionally, you should go into genetic testing with a plan, listing doctors you can call for a follow-up appointment if you need further testing or if anything is reported. The more prepared you are to take action, the less anxiety you will have about getting into it.
It is also important that you understand the financial, medical and social implications of genetic testing and make an independent decision based on your own situation, for example:
- Affordability. Screening for cancer risk can be a costly investment. You should independently assess the affordability of a diagnostics provider before making a decision.
- Accuracy and reliability. The possibility of false positives and false negatives is remote but present. It is essential that we understand this and treat our results as indicative and not definitive.
- Social consequences. Some people face discrimination because of their genetic risk factors, such as difficulty obtaining insurance coverage. Also, communicating a potential cancer risk to family and friends should be approached with caution.
If you are considering genetic testing, talking to both a medical professional and a mental health professional can help you make an informed decision about whether genetic testing is right for you.