Manualised cognitive behavioural therapy in treating depression in advanced cancer: The CanTalk RCT

Marc Serfaty, Michael King, Irwin Nazareth, Stirling Moorey, Trefor Aspden, Adrian Tookman, Kathryn Mannix, Anna Gola, Sarah Davis, John Wood, Louise Jones

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With a prevalence of up to 16.5%, depression is one of the commonest mental disorders in people with advanced cancer. Depression reduces the quality of life (QoL) of patients and those close to them. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines recommend treating depression using antidepressants and/or psychological treatments, such as cognitive–behavioural therapy (CBT). Although CBT has been shown to be effective for people with cancer, it is unclear whether or not this is the case for people with advanced cancer and depression.

To assess the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of treatment as usual (TAU) plus manualised CBT, delivered by high-level Improving Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT) practitioners, versus TAU for people with advanced cancer and depression, measured at baseline, 6, 12, 18 and 24 weeks.

Parallel-group, single-blind, randomised trial, stratified by whether or not an antidepressant was prescribed, comparing TAU with CBT plus TAU.

Recruitment took place in oncology, hospice and primary care settings. CBT was delivered in IAPT centres or/and over the telephone.

Patients (N = 230; n = 115 in each arm) with advanced cancer and depression. Inclusion criteria were a diagnosis of cancer not amenable to cure, a DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition) diagnosis of depressive disorder using the Mini-International Neuropsychiatric Interview, a sufficient understanding of English and eligibility for treatment in an IAPT centre. Exclusion criteria were an estimated survival of
(1) Up to 12 sessions of manualised individual CBT plus TAU delivered within 16 weeks and (2) TAU.

Outcome measures
The primary outcome was the Beck Depression Inventory, version 2 (BDI-II) score at 6, 12, 18 and 24 weeks. Secondary outcomes included scores on the Patient Health Questionnaire-9, the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group Performance Status, satisfaction with care, EuroQol-5 Dimensions and the Client Services Receipt Inventory, at 12 and 24 weeks.

A total of 80% of treatments (185/230) were analysed: CBT (plus TAU) (n = 93) and TAU (n = 92) for the BDI-II score at all time points using multilevel modelling. CBT was not clinically effective [treatment effect –0.84, 95% confidence interval (CI) –2.76 to 1.08; p = 0.39], nor was there any benefit for other measures. A subgroup analysis of those widowed, divorced or separated showed a significant effect of CBT on the BDI-II (treatment effect –7.21, 95% CI –11.15 to –3.28; p 
Although all participants satisfied a diagnosis of depression, for some, this was of less than moderate severity at baseline, which could have attenuated treatment effects. Only 64% (74/115) took up CBT, comparable to the general uptake through IAPT.

Cognitive–behavioural therapy (delivered through IAPT) does not achieve any clinical benefit in advanced cancer patients with depression. The benefit of CBT for people widowed, divorced or separated is consistent with other studies. Alternative treatment options for people with advanced cancer warrant evaluation. Screening and referring those widowed, divorced or separated to IAPT for CBT may be beneficial. Whether or not improvements in this subgroup are due to non-specific therapeutic effects needs investigation.

Trial registration
Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN07622709.

This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 23, No. 19. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-106
Number of pages106
JournalHealth Technology Assessment
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2019


  • Antidepressive Agents/therapeutic use
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Depressive Disorder, Major/therapy
  • Hospices
  • Hospitals
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms/mortality
  • Primary Health Care
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Technology Assessment, Biomedical
  • Treatment Outcome


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