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Breast Cancer Screenings and Mental Health

People with serious mental illness often die 15-20 years before people without serious mental illness.1 Some types of serious mental illness include bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia. The most common causes of death for people with serious mental illness are cancer and heart disease. Many doctors believe these deaths can be prevented.1

Mental illness and cancer

We know that breast cancer is best treated in its early stages. However, women with serious mental illness often do not get the care that prevents diseases like breast cancer. For instance, they are less likely to get screening mammograms and are half as likely to get other health screenings.2 Because of this, women with severe mental illness are more often diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. They often have larger tumors and cancer in their lymph nodes. This makes their cancer harder to treat.2 It also makes these women more likely to die from breast cancer.

How mental illness impacts breast cancer

Doctors wondered why these women weren’t getting screened for cancer. One team compared about 25,000 patients with severe mental illness and about 450,000 who didn’t have a severe mental illness. They found many reasons why women with severe mental illness are not screened for breast cancer. These women may not have access to mammograms because they have no money for any type of healthcare.1 They often do not have a primary care doctor to remind them to be screened for diseases or provide health education.1 Women whose mental illness is more severe, are even less likely to get cancer screenings.2

Better screening may help

Women with severe mental illness may have their care focused mainly on their mental health.1 This may lead to their doctor to neglect their other healthcare needs. These studies brought more recognition to the overall health needs of women with mental illness. Many doctor’s offices are working on the best way for all people to be educated on their healthcare.1 This means that social workers, nurses or a case manager may also be involved in a patient’s health education. If you have any questions or concerns about cancer screening for yourself or a loved one, talk to your healthcare team. They can set up a mammogram, a colonoscopy, and other cancer screenings that may have been overlooked. Cancer screenings are important for everyone. Cancer that is caught early is often easier to treat and cure.

  1. Hwong A, Wang K, Bent S, Mangurian C. Breast Cancer Screening in Women With Schizophrenia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Psychiatric Services. 2019:appi.ps.2019003. doi:10.1176/appi.ps.201900318.
  2. Harrison P. Cancer Screening Less Likely Among Women With Schizophrenia. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/921818. Published 2019. Accessed 1/5/2020.

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