Cancer-related depression: What is it and what can you do about it?

It’s important to spot the signs of cancer-related depression early so you can keep it from affecting your quality of life, and, possibly, even your treatment outcomes.

Depression may be hard to spot. In fact, it may look a lot like the sadness, fear and anxiety you’d expect to accompany a cancer diagnosis. If you keep canceling on that friend who wants to meet for dinner, though, or you find it harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning, you may be suffering from something more serious than sadness. It may be cancer-related depression, which affects one in four cancer patients.

“It’s quite common, probably almost universal, for people to feel scared, worried, anxious and sad when diagnosed with cancer,” says Katherine Puckett, PhD, a licensed Clinical Social Worker and Chief of the Mind-Body Medicine Division at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). “But clinical depression is different from sadness, with specific criteria and symptoms, and it may make it harder for patients to seek treatment in the first place, or to remain in treatment once it’s begun.” It’s important to spot the signs of depression early so you can keep it from affecting your quality of life, and, possibly, even your treatment outcomes.

Reasons and symptoms

As a cancer patient, you may develop clinical depression for a variety of reasons, including concerns over your diagnosis, the amount of pain you’re experiencing, your family history of depression or other mental health issues, the number of outside stressors you’re facing, and how much support you’re getting from the people around you. Maybe cancer treatment is changing your body in ways you don’t like, or your therapy appointments are keeping you from that yoga class you look forward to each week.

Symptoms of clinical depression include:

  • A sense of hopelessness
  • A lack of interest in activities you typically enjoy
  • Insomnia (disrupted sleep) or “hypersomnia” (excessive sleeping) and ongoing fatigue
  • Irritability and difficulty with concentration and/or memory
  • Significant, unexplained weight loss or weight gain, or changes in appetite
  • Suicidal thoughts or feelings, or recurrent thoughts of death

The effects of depression may be severe. You may get to the point where you don’t feel like you’re worth treating, or you don’t want to burden your caregivers any longer. Some cancer patients who experience poor quality of life, especially those who are not being treated for their depression, may be at risk for suicide. That’s why the signs are important to spot and address.

If you have any symptoms of depression, seek out a licensed mental health professional to help you work through your emotions, Dr. Puckett advises. You may want to ask a doctor, a trusted friend, a pastor or a local health center for a referral. Mental health professionals may be able to help you manage depression with social support and professional help, such as counseling, medication, exercise and meditation.

Caregivers affected, too

Cancer patients aren’t the only ones who should be on the lookout for depression. It often affects caregivers, too. Many of those caring for loved ones fighting cancer report feeling helpless and overwhelmed, either because they find it hard to see their loved one suffering, they don’t have the medical training required to care for their loved one, or they don’t know how or what to do to help, Dr. Puckett says. “Caregivers are encouraged to make things as easy as possible for themselves at home, such as relaxing their housekeeping standards, during the time that they’re a caregiver,” she says. “They may also find it helpful to talk about their feelings with someone who will listen, and take care of themselves as they would take care of their loved one, even when it’s hard to find the time or energy to do so.”

Depression is common among cancer survivors, too—sometimes even long after they’ve completed treatment. The fear of cancer recurrence, the lingering physical effects of past treatments or survivor guilt may make you susceptible to depressive thoughts or emotions. To help alleviate those feelings, try spending time with the people you love, taking time out of your day to have fun, and building regular exercise into your routine. Also, look for opportunities to share your feelings with someone rather than letting them build up inside. “Sharing hard things with someone else may help lighten the load,” Dr. Puckett says.