Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: The stress of waiting for a breast cancer diagnosis

In Brief

The stress of waiting for a breast cancer diagnosis

Roughly one million American women undergo biopsies each year to determine whether they have breast cancer. A small study by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston provides evidence that women who learn they need further testing to make a diagnosis may experience as much stress as those who learn they have cancer.

The researchers collected a series of saliva samples from 126 women undergoing breast biopsies in order to measure levels of cortisol, a hormone produced in response to stress, over a five-day period. The researchers found that cortisol levels in the 73 patients who found out they needed further testing were similar to those in the 16 patients who learned they had breast cancer — and that both groups had higher cortisol levels than the 37 patients who found out their biopsy results were benign.

Lang EV, et al. "Large Core Breast Biopsy: Abnormal Salivary Cortisol Profiles Associated with Uncertainty of Diagnosis," Radiology (March 2009): Vol. 250, No. 3, pp. 631–37.

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