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Physical Symptoms Prevalent No Matter What Stage of Cancer


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Twenty-two physical symptoms associated with cancer – symptoms often unrecognized and undertreated – are prevalent in all types of cancers, regardless of whether the person is newly diagnosed, undergoing treatment, or is a cancer survivor, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Numerous physical symptoms, rather than just a few, were prevalent in people with cancer, and this prevalence did not diminish after completion of therapy. Common symptoms include fatigue, pain, weakness, appetite loss, dry mouth, constipation, insomnia, and nausea. These physical symptoms are associated with substantial functional impairment, disability, and diminished quality of life.

“We found that regardless of where they are in the course of their diseases, many individuals with cancer have a high symptom burden,” says Kurt Kroenke, MD, the study’s principal investigator and first author. “These symptoms impact them at home and at work throughout their lives.”

Study participants (all of whom had pain, depression, or both) experienced substantial disability, reporting on average 17 of the past 28 days as either bed days or days in which they had to cut down on activities by at least 50 percent. Almost all participants reported feeling tired, and most were bothered “a lot” by this symptom.

In spite of high symptom prevalence, the researchers did not uncover greater use of the healthcare system. There may be several explanations for this, including individuals’ inclinations to focus on cancer treatment while with their physicians or their tendency to accept the symptoms as an inevitable result of the disease or its treatment.

“Patients and their families should be encouraged to bring up symptoms like pain or insomnia with physicians,” says Dr. Kroenke. Recognizing and managing physical symptoms such as fatigue, pain, nausea, and insomnia may make a significant difference regardless of type or phase of cancer.

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This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2010.