Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women other than skin cancer. One in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer at some point in their lives (American Cancer Society, 2008).
Clearly, women diagnosed with breast cancer would be expected to suffer psychological as well as physical pain. In fact, many studies suggest a prevalence of depressive symptoms in the cancer patient.
What Does the Research Suggest? The frequency of depression occurring in patients after diagnosis has reported rates to be as high as 58%, suggesting a strong relationship between the diagnosis of cancer and the onset of depression.
Recent research looking at illness and the mind/body connection found a surprising twist: One major 13-year study found that participants with a history of depression were four times more likely to develop breast cancer than those who had never been depressed.
We now are able to look at mental illness biologically, thanks to medical imaging technology, which enables scientists to "see" clinical depression in the brain. They have also been able to trace how early life experiences can change certain brain structures, through the overactivation of certain chemicals and hormones, in response to stress, for example. This information has changed how depression is viewed and treated.
Sadness vs. Depression - It is important to distinguish depression from sadness. Depression is more than just being sad. The symptoms of depression include:
- Prolonged sadness or unexplained crying spells
- Significant changes in appetite and sleep patterns
- Irritability, anger, worry, agitation, anxiety
- Pessimism, indifference
- Loss of energy, persistent lethargy
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness
- Inability to concentrate, indecisiveness
- Inability to take pleasure in former interests, social withdrawal
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
Helpful Strategies - Once a diagnosis of clinical depression is determined by the doctor, treatment of both the cancer and the depression becomes vital to a patient's well being. Depression is a treatable disorder that has a biological basis.
Effective treatments may include: psychotherapy; group therapy; antidepressant medication. There is compelling evidence that the combination of psychotherapy and medication management produces the best results for many patients.
Other coping methods include: journaling; engaging in regular physical activity; taking time for pleasurable pursuits each day; talking with supportive friends and family.