Study Evaluates Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms in Young Adults with Cancer

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Researchers at the University of Michigan recently reported that young adults with cancer should try to stay occupied with school, work, and other usual activities during the year after their cancer diagnosis to become less vulnerable to post-traumatic stress symptoms. The study was recently reported in Psycho-Oncology.1

Overview of Study

Researchers surveyed 215 adolescents and young adults with cancer to address the challenges in coping with a life-threatening illness and treatment. At 6 and 12 months, respectively, 39% and 44% reported moderate to severe levels of psychological distress.

Few studies have examined the prevalence and predictors of post-traumatic stress symptoms in young adults. Lead study author Minyoung Kwak and principal investigator Brad Zebrack, PhD, MSW, MPH, of the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, assessed post-traumatic stress symptoms among respondents ages 15 to 39 years at 6 and 12 months following their cancer diagnosis.

The study’s participants answered questions about their backgrounds and the frequency and severity of symptoms.

Early Screening for Psychological Distress Important

Dr. Kwak noted the elevated levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms among young cancer patients occurred during the first 6 months postdiagnosis, but did not change significantly six months later.

Previous research in older adults has indicated that post-traumatic stress symptoms decreased within a relatively short period. The recent findings in young adults were consistent with studies indicating that a greater proportion of adolescent and young adult cancer patients experience psychological distress when compared to older adults with cancer.

These findings also revealed that those who maintained employment or school attendance after diagnosis experienced significantly lower levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms at the 12-month follow-up compared to those who were unemployed or not in school.

“Remaining occupied in school or work may provide adolescents and young adults with a social support system and sense of control over their lives that serves to buffer the traumatic aspects of cancer and its treatment,” Dr. Kwak said. The findings, she said, emphasize the importance of early screening and intervention for psychological distress among young cancer patients. ■

Disclosure: Drs. Kwak and Zebrack reported no potential conflicts of interest.


1. Kwak M, Zebrack BJ, Meeske KA, et al: Prevalence and predictors of post-traumatic stress symptoms in adolescent and young adult cancer survivors: A 1-year follow-up study. Psycho-Oncology 22(8): 1798-1806, 2013.