Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care


Mental Health Morbidities and Time to Cancer Diagnosis Among Adults With Colon Cancer in England

31 October 2023

Mental health morbidity (MHM) in patients presenting with possible cancer symptoms may be associated with prediagnostic care and time to cancer diagnosis.

To compare the length of intervals to cancer diagnosis by preexisting MHM status in patients who presented with symptoms of as-yet–undiagnosed colon cancer and evaluate their risk of emergency cancer diagnosis.

Design, Setting, and Participants  
This cohort study was conducted using linked primary care data obtained from the population-based Clinical Practice Research Datalink, which includes primary care practices in England, linked to cancer registry and hospital data. Included participants were 3766 patients diagnosed with colon cancer between 2011 and 2015 presenting with cancer-relevant symptoms up to 24 months before their diagnosis. Data analysis was performed in January 2021 to April 2022.

Mental health conditions recorded in primary care before cancer diagnosis, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, alcohol addiction, anorexia, and bulimia.

Main Outcomes and Measures  
Fast-track (also termed 2–week wait) specialist referral for investigations, time to colonoscopy and cancer diagnosis, and risk of emergency cancer diagnosis.

Among 3766 patients with colon cancer (median [IQR] age, 75 [65-82] years; 1911 [50.7%] women ), 623 patients [16.5%] had preexisting MHM recorded in primary care the year before cancer diagnosis, including 562 patients (14.9%) with preexisting anxiety or depression (accounting for 90.2% of patients with preexisting MHM) and 61 patients (1.6%) with other MHM; 3143 patients (83.5%) did not have MHM. Patients with MHM had records of red-flag symptoms or signs (ie, rectal bleeding, change in bowel habit, or anemia) in the 24 months before cancer diagnosis in a smaller proportion compared with patients without MHM (308 patients [49.4%] vs 1807 patients [57.5%]; P < .001). Even when red-flag symptoms were recorded, patients with MHM had lower odds of fast-track specialist referral (adjusted odds ratio [OR] = 0.72; 95% CI, 0.55-0.94; P = .01). Among 2115 patients with red-flag symptoms or signs, 308 patients with MHM experienced a more than 2-fold longer median (IQR) time to cancer diagnosis (326 [75-552] days vs 133 [47-422] days) and higher odds of emergency diagnosis (90 patients [29.2%] vs 327 patients [18.1%]; adjusted OR = 1.63; 95% CI, 1.23-2.24; P < .001) compared with 1807 patients without MHM.

Conclusions and Relevance  
This study found that patients with MHM experienced large and prognostically consequential disparities in diagnostic care before a colon cancer diagnosis. These findings suggest that appropriate pathways and follow-up strategies after symptomatic presentation are needed for earlier cancer diagnoses and improved health outcomes in this large patient group.

Read the full paper here