Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home

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Some depression is common when patients and family members are coping with cancer. Sadness and grief are normal, as are a range of other emotions. But when these feelings last a long time or get in the way of day-to-day activities, there is reason for concern. Clinical depression, a treatable illness, occurs in about 1 in 4 people with cancer. Depression can cause people to feel more distressed and make it harder for them to function and follow treatment plans. People who have had serious depression before are more likely to have depression after their cancer diagnosis.

The symptoms of clinical depression are listed below. Family and friends can look for these symptoms in the patient and encourage them to get help for depression when symptoms are noticed. Patients do not usually have symptoms of anxiety and depression at the same time. (See the section called “Anxiety, fear, and emotional distress.”)

Treatments for depression in people with cancer include medicine, counseling, or a combination of both, and sometimes other specialized treatments. These treatments improve the depression, reduce the suffering, and help the person with cancer have a better quality of life.

What to look for

Symptoms of clinical depression

  • Sad or “empty” mood almost every day for most of the day
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Eating problems (loss of appetite or overeating), including weight loss or gain*
  • Sleep changes (inability to sleep, early waking, or oversleeping)*
  • Fatigue or decreased energy almost every day*
  • Other people notice that you are restless or “slowed down” almost every day
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Trouble concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or attempts at suicide
  • Wide mood swings from depression to periods of agitation and high energy

If 5 or more of the above symptoms last for 2 weeks or longer or are severe enough to hinder normal functioning, a person should be evaluated for clinical depression by a qualified health professional or mental health specialist.

*Physical problems such as fatigue, poor appetite, and sleep changes can also be side effects of cancer treatment, and can linger after cancer treatment is over. Talk to your doctor about the possible causes of these symptoms and if depression might be a factor.

What the patient can do

  • Talk about feelings and fears that you or family members may have. It’s OK to feel sad and frustrated.
  • Listen carefully to each other.
  • Decide together what you can do to support each other.
  • Encourage, but do not force, one another to talk.
  • Seek help through counseling and support groups.
  • Use prayer, meditation, or other types of spiritual support.
  • Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises several times a day. (For example, close your eyes, breathe deeply, focus on each body part, and relax it, starting with your toes and working up to your head. When you’re relaxed, imagine yourself in a pleasant place, such as a breezy beach or a sunny meadow.)
  • Talk with your doctor about possible treatments for anxiety or depression.
  • Consider working with a professional counselor to deal with the changes in your life.
  • Be sure the doctor has a list of all the drugs you are taking before antidepressants are started.
  • Take all medicines as prescribed.
  • Expect antidepressants to take at least 2 to 4 weeks to work. Sometimes, stimulant drugs are used during this time to relieve symptoms.
  • Let your doctor know if you are having side effects after starting an antidepressant.
  • Avoid alcohol while on an antidepressant unless you check with your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Find out if the antidepressant causes drowsiness before you try to drive.
  • Do not suddenly stop taking the antidepressant medicine.

What caregivers can do

  • Gently invite the patient to talk about their fears and concerns.
  • Do not force the patient to talk before they are ready.
  • Listen carefully without judging the patient’s feelings or your own. It’s OK to point out and disagree with self-defeating thoughts. Do not tell the person to “cheer up” or “think positive” if they are depressed.
  • Decide together what you can do to support each other.
  • Do not try to reason with the person if fear, anxiety, or depression is severe. Talk with the doctor about medicines and other kinds of help.
  • If needed, help make the appointment for evaluation or treatment and take the patient to the doctor or therapist.
  • Engage the person in activities they enjoy.
  • If the patient starts antidepressants, encourage them to continue treatment until symptoms improve (which may take 2 to 4 weeks) and talk to the doctor about different treatment if symptoms don’t improve.
  • Reassure the depressed person that with time and treatment, they will begin to feel better.
  • Keep in mind that caregivers can also become depressed. All these suggestions may be used for caregivers, too.
  • Take time to care for yourself. Spend time with friends or doing activities you enjoy.
  • Consider getting support for yourself through groups or one-on-one counseling.

Call the doctor if the patient:

  • Has thoughts of suicide, or cannot stop thinking about death
  • Behaves in such a way that you are concerned about their safety
  • Cannot eat or sleep and is not interested in their usual activities for several days
  • Has trouble breathing, is sweating, or feels restless

Also see the section, “Anxiety, fear, and emotional distress.” For more in-depth information on depression, call your American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 and ask for a copy of Anxiety, Fear, and Depression, or read it on our website,

Last Medical Review: 11/05/2013
Last Revised: 11/05/2013