Distress among cancer patients has been broadly accepted as an important indicator of well-being but has not been well studied. We investigated patient characteristics associated with high distress levels as well as correlations among measures of patient-reported distress and “objective” stress-related biomarkers among colorectal cancer patients.
In total, 238 patients with colon or rectal cancer completed surveys including the Distress Thermometer, Problem List, and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale. We abstracted demographic and clinical information from patient charts and determined salivary cortisol level and imaging-based sarcopenia. We evaluated associations between patient characteristics (demographics, clinical factors, and psychosocial and physical measures) and three outcomes (patient-reported distress, cortisol, and sarcopenia) with Spearman’s rank correlations and multivariable linear regression. The potential moderating effect of age was separately investigated by including an interaction term in the regression models.
Patient-reported distress was associated with gender (median: women 5.0, men 3.0, p < 0.001), partnered status (single 5.0, partnered 4.0, p = 0.018), and cancer type (rectal 5.0, colon 4.0, p = 0.026); these effects varied with patient age. Cortisol level was associated with "emotional problems" (ρ = 0.34, p = 0.030), anxiety (ρ = 0.046, p = 0.006), and depression (ρ = 0.54, p = 0.001) among younger patients. We found no significant associations between patient-reported distress, salivary cortisol, and sarcopenia.
We found that young, single patients reported high levels of distress compared to other patient groups. Salivary cortisol may have limited value as a cancer-related stress biomarker among younger patients, based on association with some psychosocial measures. Stress biomarkers may not be more clinically useful than patient-reported measures in assessing distress among colorectal cancer patients.

© 2021 The Authors. Cancer Medicine published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.