Cancer-Related Depression: Common but Treatable
Depression is common among people with cancer. Fortunately, treatments are available to help you cope.

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Picture of woman concerned about cancer Cancer-Related Depression: Common but Treatable

Being diagnosed with cancer causes great distress and anxiety. It's natural to feel fearful and sad as you adjust to this life-changing condition. Expect that there will be periods of emotional ups and downs throughout your diagnosis and treatment. As you begin to accept your life with cancer, feelings of sadness and grief ought to lessen. This will help you focus on fighting your cancer. However, for 1 in 4 people with cancer, depression takes a subtle hold that's often hard to recognize.

You may have depression if:

  • After some time has passed, you are still having trouble adjusting to your diagnosis
  • You've lost interest in most activities

Other reasons a cancer diagnosis can bring on depression include:

  • Having poorly controlled pain
  • Being tired because chemotherapy or radiation has caused anemia
  • Having a lack of appetite
  • Having an altered body image from the cancer itself or from surgery

You may be at greater risk for depression if you have a personal or family history of depression or you have little social support.

Could it be depression?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the following symptoms may signal depression:

  • A sad or empty feeling that doesn't go away
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most activities
  • A change in eating habits
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Feeling tired or having no energy
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless, nervous, worthless, or guilty
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Thinking often about death

It can be tough to tell the difference between the effects of cancer and symptoms of depression. Cancer itself can cause some of these symptoms. If these symptoms persist or are severe, talk to your doctor. It's important to talk about your feelings and get support for all of your symptoms. Cancer-related depression can and should be treated.

How is depression treated?
Depression can be treated with counseling, medication, or a combination of both. At first, it may seem overwhelming to seek treatment for depression when you are already being treated for cancer. But getting treatment can help you regain the stamina and hope you need to fight cancer.

  • Medication. Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant medication. It can help relieve your symptoms by helping balance brain chemicals. It may take 3 to 6 weeks before you feel its full effects. Do not stop taking your medication without talking to your doctor first.
  • Counseling. Talking with a therapist (a mental health professional) or joining a support group can help you cope with depression and cancer - and the effect both have on your life. You may benefit from joining a support group for people with cancer. Sharing your feelings with others in the same situation may help to lift your mood.

There are different kinds of antidepressant medicines and different kinds of counseling methods. Together, you and your doctor can come up with a treatment plan that's right for you.

It's important not to keep your feelings and concerns locked inside. Reach out to family, friends, and professionals who will listen and help.

NOTE: Anyone being treated with antidepressants, especially people being treated for depression, should be watched closely for worsening of depression and for increased suicidal thinking or behavior. Close watching may be especially important early in treatment or when the dose is changed - either increased or decreased. This warning applies to everyone - adults, teens, and children. Bring up any concerns right away with a doctor.

By Gregg Newby, Staff Writer
Created on 10/19/2007
Updated on 05/28/2008
  • National Cancer Institute. Depression.
  • American Cancer Society. Anxiety, fear, and depression.
  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Depression and cancer.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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