The Diagnosis of Cancer: Psychological Impact in the Elderly

Jennifer M. Jones, PhD
Research Scientist,
Psychosocial Oncology Program,
Princess Margaret Hospital, University Health Network,
Toronto, ON.

Gary Rodin, MD, FRCP(C)
Head, Psychosocial Oncology,
Princess Margaret Hospital & Psychiatrist-in-Chief,
University Health Network,
Toronto, ON.


Psychological Response to Illness: Coping with a Diagnosis of Cancer
The diagnosis of cancer is inevitably experienced as a traumatic event, although the individual response to it depends upon the nature and stage of the disease, the associated disability, the life stage of the individual affected, its personal meaning and the sociocultural context in which the individual is situated. In the elderly, who commonly experience concerns about self-sufficiency, the onset of a serious medical illness such as cancer may trigger intolerable feelings of helplessness and dependence.

Most patients experience shock when they first learn of their diagnosis of cancer. In some cases, there may be profound anxiety with symptoms of hyperarousal and vigilance arousal, and an oscillation between intrusive thoughts of the cancer and avoidance of the frightening reality. These symptoms represent a stress response syndrome, which may be reactivated following a recurrence of the cancer, which can be even more traumatic than the original diagnosis.