Cancer and Depression

Dealing with despair in the face of a devastating diagnosis.

Being diagnosed with cancer isn’t easy. It brings about a range of emotions, from confusion to fear to sadness. And for up to 25 percent of people who suffer from cancer, depression can also set in.

Unfortunately, mixing depression with cancer is more dangerous than either condition by itself. Depressed individuals are less likely to be concerned for their well-being and are therefore less likely to follow physician’s orders regarding their cancer treatment. Therefore, it’s important to understand how to recognize clinical depression in someone dealing with cancer and to take action to ensure the highest quality of life possible.

What It Looks Like

It’s easy to see why cancer can bring on depression. But it may not be as easy to recognize the difference between sadness that will pass and clinical depression that may not.

The following are symptoms of clinical depression:

  • considerable weight loss or gain when there is no change in diet (weight loss also may occur as a side effect of treatment)
  • experiencing feelings of helplessness, guilt, or worthlessness
  • losing interest in nearly everything nearly all of the time
  • being constantly fatigued
  • suffering from sleep issues, such as sleeping too much, not being able to sleep, or waking up early
  • thinking a lot about death or having suicidal thoughts on a regular basis
  • having a negative or sad outlook on life, even in the face of good news

A Whole Family Concern

With all of the tough decisions, treatments, and side effects of cancer and its treatments, the person living with cancer is not the only person susceptible to depression. Caretakers can also be prone to becoming depressed, as they often must tend hand and foot on their loved ones who once were so healthy.

Children of cancer victims can also wind up battling with depression. Because no matter how much you tell children about the type of cancer or the treatment process, their intuition tells them something is wrong. Very wrong. And the longer the process takes, the more likely they are to grow fearful, potentially developing depression.

Not the End

Though depression is extremely common in cancer patients and their loved ones, it is not unavoidable or untreatable. It’s also not normal. By recognizing these facts, you can help your loved ones or yourself get the treatment necessary to ward off depressive episodes and move forward in a positive direction.

A variety of treatments are available for depression. Medication is often prescribed and is immediately helpful. Another common and beneficial treatment is counseling. With appropriate counseling, the depressed individual – with or without cancer – learns how to cope with the daily issues that arise in life. Some people dealing with depression are prescribed both medication and counseling.

Regardless of the treatment methods, dealing with depression as soon as possible will help greatly in the battle against cancer.

Get Immediate Help

Sometimes, depression gets dangerous. When an individual gets so depressed that he or she believes life isn’t worth living any longer, suicidal thoughts and actions may follow.

If you recognize the following signs in a loved one, seek immediate help:

  • talking incessantly about dying (discussing death is common for cancer patients, but it is not normal for those with cancer to be fixated upon death or to desire their own death)
  • sudden lack of self-confidence
  • sudden, unexplainable changes in personality from being sad or irritable to feeling anxious or apathetic
  • attempting to commit suicide
  • becoming unconcerned with his or her own well-being and taking risks that put his or her life in jeopardy

Calling a physician or suicide help line at the first hint of these signs may make the difference between life and death.

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