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The role of objective versus perceived life threat in the psychological adjustment to cancer

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Several studies in the oncology literature have used disease stage as a measure of life threat. According to the transactional model of stress (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984), however, the individual's perception of a threatening situation is more strongly related to distress than the objective event itself. Thus, the present study examined whether cancer patients' perceived life threat (PLT) is more strongly associated with psychological adjustment than a more objective index of disease prognosis (i.e., cancer stage). In addition, based on cognitive processing theories, this study examined whether intrusive thoughts and avoidance, cognitive characteristics of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mediate the relationship between PLT and distress. Patients diagnosed with various types of cancer (N = 97) completed questionnaires assessing PLT, cancer-related intrusive thoughts and avoidance, distress, and quality of life. Consistent with theoretical predictions, regression analyses showed that PLT, but not disease stage, was significantly related to psychological distress and quality of life. In addition, intrusive thoughts and avoidance mediated the relationship between PLT and distress. Taken together, these findings suggest that cancer patients' PLT is more strongly related to distress than is cancer stage and that this association is partly due to cognitive symptoms that are part of PTSD symptomatology. Thus, patients who appraise their illness as life threatening may benefit from cognitive interventions aimed at reducing distress associated with intrusive thoughts.
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Keywords: Cancer; Intrusive thoughts; Life threat; Stress

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: August 1, 2004

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