Depression in cancer patients: What you should know

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By Emily Weaver


Depression is a serious illness that can have a major impact on an individual's quality of life. In fact, 15-25% of people diagnosed with cancer also suffer from depression. This is more than double that of the general population. Studies show that mental health and social well-being can affect the success of treatment.


Distinguishing depression from normal sadness

Depression is more than just the normal feelings of sadness. Depression is a when an individual experiences at least one of the following symptoms for more than two weeks:

  • Feeling sad most of the time
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Nervousness
  • Slow physical and mental responses
  • Unexplained tiredness
  • Feeling worthless
  • Feeling guilt for no reason
  • Decreased concentration ability
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If you suffer from any of these problems for more than two weeks and the symptoms are severe enough to cause noticeable problems in day-to-day activities, speak with your doctor. He or she can help determine the cause of these issues and plan further treatment, if necessary.


Understanding depression in cancer patients

It's normal for cancer patients to experience sadness and grief for a variety of reasons, such as changes in life plans, changes in self-esteem and body image, disruption of social roles, financial challenges and end-of-life issues.


As you experience these changes and challenges, it's important to monitor the feelings that you're experiencing to ensure that they are not impacting your day-to-day life or interfering with your medical care.

How to deal with depression

Anti-depressants are a common depression treatment prescribed for many cancer patients. And while they work great for some, they may not be the appropriate treatment for all cancer patients. There are also other proven methods that you may want to discuss with your doctor first.  Here are a few:


  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy or counseling can occur one-on-one or in a group setting. Some common evidence based forms of treatment that are effective for depression are cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy and interpersonal therapy.
  • Exercise: Exercise can also aid in treating depression, with most studies showing that exercising at least three times a week as being ideal. The American Cancer Society recommends that you resume exercise as soon as possible after a cancer diagnosis, but this can be difficult for many cancer patients. So, talk with your health care provider about what's appropriate for you.
  • Stick to routines: Following a routine can help you maintain a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of control, both of which can be negatively affected by cancer and depression. A routine can also help push an individual to engage in activities they wouldn't necessarily be motivated to complete.

How caregivers can help 

If you are a caregiver, family member or friend to someone suffering from depression, there are many ways you can help your loved one. Encourage him or her to seek treatment for depression.


Also, provide a safe place for your loved one to talk to you about what he or she is experiencing and offer non-judgmental feedback. Show your loved one that you truly care about his or her physical and emotional well-being. 

Cancer patients: Make time to get the help and support you need

If you think you may suffer from depression, make time to get the help and support you need. After all, treating depression as soon as possible could help make your cancer journey a little less challenging.


To learn more about managing depression or about resources available to those struggling with depression, ask to speak with your social work counselor or contact the Department of Social Work at 713-792-6195.

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