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ASCO Guidelines

Apr 19, 2023

Dr. Barbara Andersen delves into the newly updated guideline for management of anxiety and depression in adult survivors of cancer in this ASCO Guidelines podcast episode. This guideline affirms prior guidance regarding screening and assessment of anxiety and depression, and updates evidence-based recommendations for management of both anxiety and depression. Dr. Andersen reviews the principles of the recommended stepped-care model, along with recommended treatments, including options such as cognitive behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, behavioral activation, structured physical activity and exercise, and mindfulness-based stress reduction. Challenges regarding managing anxiety and depression in adult survivors of cancer are also discussed.
Read the full guideline update, “Management of Anxiety and Depression in Adult Survivors of Cancer: ASCO Guideline Update” at


This guideline, clinical tools, and resources are available at Read the full text of the guideline and review authors’ disclosures of potential conflicts of interest disclosures in the Journal of Clinical Oncology,

Brittany Harvey: Hello and welcome to the ASCO Guidelines Podcast, one of ASCO's podcasts delivering timely information to keep you up to date on the latest changes, challenges, and advances in oncology. You can find all the shows, including this one, at

 My name is Brittany Harvey, and today I'm interviewing Dr. Barbara Andersen from the Ohio State University, lead author on “Management of Anxiety and Depression in Adult Survivors of Cancer: ASCO Guideline Update.”

 Thank you for being here, Dr. Andersen.

 Dr. Barbara Andersen: Thank you. Thank you for the invitation.

Brittany Harvey: And then, just before we discuss this guideline, I'd like to note that ASCO takes great care in the development of its guidelines and ensuring that the ASCO conflict of interest policy is followed for each guideline. The disclosures of potential conflicts of interest for the guideline panel, including Dr. Andersen on this episode, are available online with the publication of the guideline in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, which is linked in the show notes.

 So then, to jump into the content of this guideline, Dr. Andersen, what prompted an update to this guideline, and what is the scope of this updated version of the guideline?

 Dr. Barbara Andersen: Well, as your listeners probably know, guidelines are routinely updated, primarily due to new accumulated evidence that suggests a change in diagnostic or treatment procedures. The first guideline from ASCO was in 2014. They made this important first step, which alone made that an important advance. The prior scope was on assessment, that is, which measures at what time points were important for assessing patients' depressive or anxiety symptoms. We then provided treatment pathways thereafter, noting currently available evidence for treatment. But a systematic review of the literature wasn't done at that time. So what this guide does is first affirm the prior recommendations regarding the measures to use for assessment, the PHQ-9 and the GAD-7. But the departure for these guidelines is based on a systematic review of the intervention and treatment literature, and from that review, we recommend particular treatments.

Brittany Harvey: Understood. So, focusing on that intervention and treatment aspect of this updated guideline, I'd like to review the key recommendations starting with, what are the key general management principles for people with cancer and anxiety and/or depression?

 Dr. Barbara Andersen: Well, one key principle is that of education. Your listeners probably are familiar with the fact that many hospitals or centers provide patient-tailored cancer treatment-related information, treatment information on surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and other topics. But we recommend that general first-level materials on coping with stress, anxiety about treatment, and depression be routinely provided as well. What that does is for individuals with elevated symptoms, it validates what they're experiencing and normalizes the patient experience. So we hope that all patients with cancer and any patient-identified caregiver, family member should be offered the information. We have so many ways we can give information to patients these days. Verbally, material, whatever mode is easy for you and the patient, but please choose one to give information to patients.

 Another characteristic of the guideline is our recommendation that treatment follow the principle of stepped care. So what this means is you match the assessment of the severity, level of depression or anxiety, and you match that data to the selection of treatment contexts. This is most clearly seen in the recommendation that group treatment formats be used for those with moderate severity of symptoms versus individual or face-to-face therapy for those with severe symptoms. And this is the case for both anxiety and depressive disorders. This is a principle that's cost-effective and tailors the treatment recommendations. Another principle that we offer is when making a referral of a patient for further evaluation or psychological care; we plead with you to make every effort to reduce the barriers and facilitate patient follow-through. We say it's essential because low motivation, for example, is a symptom of depression. And that low motivation and low mood can conspire to reduce the likelihood that patients will pursue treatment. So just keep that in mind when referring patients.

 Brittany Harvey: Absolutely. Those are key points for general management across anxiety and depression symptoms. So, moving beyond those principles, what are the recommendations from the expert panel for treatment and care options for patients with depressive symptoms?

 Dr. Barbara Andersen: For depressive symptoms, we recommend cognitive behavior therapy or cognitive therapy, behavioral activation, psychosocial interventions using empirically supported components, and moderate structured physical activity and exercise. All of those are efficacious, empirically supported treatments for moderate depressive symptoms. And it might be easiest to offer group therapy for individuals with these problems.

 Brittany Harvey: Great. Thank you for reviewing those recommendations for patients with depressive symptoms.

 So, in addition, what does the expert panel recommend for treatment and care options for patients with anxiety symptoms?

 Dr. Barbara Andersen: Many of the same treatments are used. Cognitive therapy, cognitive behavior therapy are the most efficacious treatments out there for cancer patients or individuals without cancer coping with anxiety symptoms or depressive symptoms. Again, behavioral activation would be useful. Mindfulness-based stress reduction has garnered significant support in the recent years, as well as interpersonal therapy.

 Brittany Harvey: Understood. So thank you so much for going through each of those recommendations.

 But in your view, Dr. Andersen, what is the importance of this guideline, and how will it impact both clinicians and patients with cancer and symptoms of anxiety and/or depression?

 Dr. Barbara Andersen: An important element to this guideline is it names the specific empirically supported standard therapies for treatment of anxiety and depression. There's a departure, though, from our prior guideline, and in this one, pharmacotherapy is not recommended as a first-line treatment, neither alone nor in combination. It's simply not supported by the evidence. However, clinicians might consider pharmacotherapy when there's low or no availability of mental health resources. Perhaps a patient might have responded well to pharmacotherapy in the past, and patients with severe neurovegetative, or agitated symptoms of depression, those patients, as well as patients with psychotic or catatonic features, would be ones for which pharmacotherapy might be appropriate.

 Brittany Harvey: Understood. And then you've just mentioned that sometimes there is no or low availability of mental health resources, so that leads to my next question. But what are the both outstanding research questions and challenges regarding managing anxiety and depression in adult survivors of cancer?

 Dr. Barbara Andersen: The largest challenge is that we're in the midst of a mental healthcare crisis, and COVID has made that abundantly clear. There are problems with access to psychological care due in part to workforce problems, maybe organizational ones, but there is a shortage of mental health professionals, and that, in turn, limits referral networks from managing depression and anxiety. So that's one significant issue that is in place right now.

 Since the 2014 guideline, screening is a care aim that has been disseminated, but the principles and procedures remain to be fully implemented. I was just looking at a 2022 article in the Journal of Oncology Practice. It was a study examining screening for lung and ovarian cancer patients, two very important groups because the frequency of depressive and anxiety symptoms is perhaps highest of any other groups. So they looked at more than 20 CoC-accredited facilities that studied the electronic records to see if there was screening for the patients. And the troubling finding, from my perspective, was that there was no screening for 45% of the patients in this study. So we know that there are disparities in the use of screening and its management. Those disparities exist across race, ethnicity, cancer type, stage, and facilities. And so, that remains a challenge for many sites, including CoC hospitals, to achieve a rigorous screening program.

Having said that, I want to say what some might disagree with, but from my standpoint, it's a myth that screening takes a long time. The measures that we recommend probably would take a patient maybe five, maybe ten minutes to complete. But what's time-consuming or what's troublesome in many places is the infrastructure is not in place to do the screening and interpret it in an efficient manner. The other perspective on screening is that it is the effort thereafter, which is, in fact, time and resource intense - that is, finding referral sources, making referrals. But that's the most important step because when that's not done, when patients continue with symptoms, it really incurs the greatest cost for the patients.

Brittany Harvey: Absolutely. Screening and then further management of anxiety and depressive symptoms is key for maintaining quality of life.

 So I want to thank you so much, Dr. Andersen, for coming on today and sharing your insights and also for all your work you did to update this guideline.

 Dr. Barbara Andersen: Thank you so much.

Brittany Harvey: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to the ASCO Guidelines Podcast.

 To read the full guideline, go to You can also find many of our guidelines and interactive resources in the newly redesigned ASCO Guidelines app, available for free in the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store. If you've enjoyed what you've heard today, please rate and review the podcast and be sure to subscribe, so you never miss an episode.

 The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions.

Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. Guest statements on the podcast do not express the opinions of ASCO. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.