Anxiety, Fear, and Depression

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Depression and cancer

It’s normal to grieve over the changes that cancer brings to a person’s life. The future, which may have seemed so sure before, now becomes uncertain. Some dreams and plans may be lost forever. But if a person has been sad for a long time or is having trouble carrying out day-to-day activities, that person may have clinical depression. In fact, up to 1 in 4 people with cancer have clinical depression.

Clinical depression causes great distress, impairs functioning, and might even make the person with cancer less able to follow their cancer treatment plan. The good news is that clinical depression can be treated.

If someone you know has symptoms of clinical depression, encourage them to get help. There are many ways to treat clinical depression including medicines, counseling, or a combination of both. Treatments can reduce suffering and improve quality of life.

Symptoms of clinical depression

  • Ongoing sad, hopeless, or “empty” mood for most of the day
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities most of the time
  • Major weight loss (when not dieting) or weight gain
  • Being slowed down or restless and agitated almost every day, enough for others to notice
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue) or loss of energy
  • Trouble sleeping with early waking, sleeping too much, or not being able to sleep
  • Trouble focusing thoughts, remembering, or making decisions
  • Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide (not just fear of death), suicide plans or attempts

Remember, some of these symptoms, such as weight changes, fatigue, or even forgetfulness can be caused by cancer and its treatment. But if 5 or more of these symptoms happen nearly every day for 2 weeks or more, or are severe enough to interfere with normal activities, it might be depression. If this is the case, encourage the person to be checked for clinical depression by a qualified health or mental health professional. If the person tries to hurt him- or herself, or has a plan to do so, get help right away.

What to do

  • Encourage the depressed person to continue treatment until symptoms improve, or to talk to the doctor about different treatment if there’s no improvement after 2 or 3 weeks.
  • Promote physical activity, especially mild exercise such as daily walks.
  • Help make appointments for mental health treatment, if needed.
  • Provide transportation for treatment, if needed.
  • Engage the person in conversation and activities they enjoy.
  • Remember that it’s OK to feel sad and grieve over the losses that cancer has brought to their lives, and to yours.
  • Realize that being pessimistic and thinking everything is hopeless are symptoms of depression and should get better with treatment.
  • Reassure the person that with time and treatment, he or she will start to feel better – and although changes to the treatment plan are sometimes needed, it’s important to be patient.

If you suspect you may be depressed, see a doctor. Make time to get the help and support you need.

Do not

  • Keep feelings inside.
  • Force someone to talk when they are not ready.
  • Blame yourself or another person for feeling depressed
  • Tell a person to cheer up if they seem depressed.
  • Try to reason with a person whose depression appears severe. Instead, talk with the doctor about medicines and other kinds of help.

Last Medical Review: 09/20/2013
Last Revised: 09/20/2013