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When cancer enters your life, it is normal to grieve over the changes it brings. You may feel a sense of loss in your health, independence, physical abilities, appearance, and/or relationships.
Sometimes dealing with the emotions of cancer, such as sadness, can be even more difficult than coping with the disease itself. It is important to distinguish between normal feelings of sadness and actual depression.
Depression is a more intense and debilitating version of sadness that results from abnormal functioning of the brain. Depression affects thoughts, feelings, and the ability to function in everyday life.
Some symptoms of depression are as follows:
If you experience several of these symptoms for two weeks or longer, or if your symptoms greatly interfere with your day-to-day activities, it is important to seek help from a medical professional. Frequent thoughts of death or suicide indicate a need for immediate intervention.
When you have cancer, episodes of depression may be triggered by a number of factors, such as the diagnosis or the impact of cancer on your life. Individuals with advanced cancer or a certain cancer type (e.g., pancreatic, brain, lung) may be more likely to develop depression. In addition, some chemotherapy drugs and other medications (e.g., steroids), as well as treatment-related side effects (e.g., fatigue, hair loss), can trigger depression.
Some additional risk factors for depression include the following:
Depression can be difficult to diagnose in people with cancer. This is because the symptoms of depression are similar to the symptoms of cancer itself or of treatment-related side effects, such as fatigue, weight loss, insomnia, and inability to concentrate. In addition, people with cancer often believe that depression is an expected part of having cancer, or they underestimate their own distress and do not seek help.
Your doctor may use a number of tests to diagnose depression, including a series of questions about your behavior, feelings, and thoughts. The evaluation of depression may include a careful examination of your medical history; personal or family history of depression; current mental status; side effects of cancer and cancer treatment; and other stresses in your life.
Depression can develop at any point in your cancer journey, even years after cancer treatment is complete. Not everyone with cancer becomes depressed, but for those who do, the condition can and should be treated.
Your doctor may recommend medications like antidepressants to treat depression. Antidepressants work by affecting certain chemicals within the brain to change your mood. There are several different types of antidepressants. The choice of medication depends on your symptoms, the current medications you are taking, the medication’s potential side effects, and your current health status. Your doctor may have to try more than one medication to find the one that suits you best.
Treatment for depression often involves a combination of medications and psychotherapy. Psychological interventions may include individual counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy, couples and family therapy, and cancer support groups. Psychological support can help lower distress, improve your coping and problem-solving skills, reduce isolation, and reshape negative thoughts.
Depression can affect you on many levels—body, mind and spirit. When your mood is low, you may feel that you don’t have the energy or motivation to deal with cancer and its treatments. Thus, depression may impact the course of the disease, your ability to participate in treatment, and your quality of life.
The first step to feeling better is getting appropriate help from a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker, who is in close contact with your cancer care team. Psychological care is normal and necessary, and is an integral part of cancer care. There are also some things you can do to help yourself.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. ALWAYS SEEK THE ADVICE OF YOUR PHYSICIAN OR OTHER QUALIFIED HEALTHCARE PROVIDER REGARDING DEPRESSION.
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